A RISING BLISS
Charles Morgan and his Breeze of Morning
Of Welsh stock with an English upbringing from
parents both born in Australia, Charles Morgan (1894-1958) is currently
the most unjustly neglected British novelist of the Twentieth Century.
This essay will present a sketch of his life and then a detailed study
of his 1951 novel A Breeze of Morning.
Eiluned Lewis, author of the acclaimed children's novel Dew on the
Grass, published the Selected Letters with a memoir (Macmillan,
1967); and it is on this memoir that I have largely relied for information
about Morgan's life and works.
Although he had wanted to be a writer from his earliest childhood, Morgan
first sought a career in the Royal Navy (1907 to 1913) and spent most
of World War One as a POW in Holland. From his naval experience came
his first apprentice work, The Gunroom (1919), which created
a minor sensation because of its exposure of the habitual mistreatment
of junior officers in the Navy: it was unofficially suppressed, possibly
as a result of influence from the Admiralty; but it resulted in significant
Morgan's experiences in Holland led to his most famous novel, The
Fountain (1932), a long work largely devoted to the contemplative
life, conveying "a brilliant lightness of spirit". Suffused
with the thoughts of the 17th Century English mystics, it views life
as an inward and secret experience of the truth that "within the
apparent form of all things is another form". The Fountain
also embodies Morgan's lifelong interest in art, love and death as three
aspects of the human impulse towards re-creation of the soul.
During his imprisonment on parole, Morgan had met and been deeply influenced
by a family of Dutch aristocrats, the van Pallandts. "Their timelessness
would take my breath away," he said of them. He also gained at
that time his intense love of France, mainly through conversations with
the blind, 86 year-old Madame Loudon (nee van Pallandt), through whom
he lived imaginatively in France of the mid-Nineteenth Century. Julie,
the heroine of The Fountain, is Morgan's imagined portrait of
her daughter, Helen, in youth. Helen, as he encountered her at Rosendaal
Castle, was a witty, artistic, elegant widow who was well read in four
languages. Morgan's attachment to the ideal of a cultured European aristocracy
took root in his two years of "time out" (as he called it
in an essay in his posthumous 1960 collection, The Writer and his
World) among the van Pallandts and their circle.
After taking a degree at Oxford, Morgan in 1922 became assistant drama
critic for The Times and in 1926 principal drama critic.
Love and marriage
Meanwhile he had fallen in love (1920) with Mary Mond, the daughter
of a tycoon; they became engaged, but Morgan was frozen out by Lady
Mond. It was partly owing to these tempestuous experiences that he wrote
his second apprentice work, the partly inspired and partly misconceived
My Name is Legion (1925). Then in 1922 he met Hilda Vaughan,
a Welsh novelist, whom he married in 1923. They had two children, Shirley
(now Lady Anglesey) and Roger. Hilda outlived him by well over twenty
Portrait in a Mirror
A third novel, Portrait in a Mirror (1929), gave Morgan the breakthrough
to public recognition he needed. Based partly on his own childhood and
adolescence, it tells with exquisite lyric intensity and deep insight
the tale of its young painter-hero, Nigel Frew, and his doomed love
of Clare Sibright, a figure of similar ambiguous nature to Dostoyevsky's
heroine in The Idiot.
One of its themes is that art is "news of reality". At one
stage Nigel reflects: "My mind leapt and sang; it was filled with
a sense of renewal, of a flowering and impregnating wisdom not my own."
The novel also gives a wonderful picture of life in a great British
country house of the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century. A powerful
influence in the novel is that of the Russian Romantic Ivan Turgenev.
Morgan followed the greater success of The Fountain with another
very long novel, Sparkenbroke (1936). Eiluned Lewis regarded
it as "in some ways the most autobiographical of all his novels".
Its neo-Byronic hero, Lord Sparkenbroke, is an apparently amoral poet
who in fact is filled with what the Welsh call hiraeth - longing. In
this case it is a longing for self-transcendence through the death of
self that happens during artistic creation, and also through physical
death itself. Morgan had been influenced by his reading of Emily Bronte's
letters. He felt that she had experienced an overwhelming mystical love
early in life and that ever afterwards she had longed to be freed from
"the enclosure of life".
Sparkenbroke is a strange novel. It contains brilliant and profound
sequences interspersed with ponderous and even pedestrian phases. It
also has strange echoes of other great literary works of the time, as
though Morgan's sensitive soul was attuned to the souls of other contemporary
artists. And it conveys the beauty of the countryside of southern England,
its ancient and yet fresh feel, with superb ardour. At one stage there
were plans to film the novel, but they were never realized; and Morgan
still awaits the cinematographic interpreter he deserves.
In 1936 he was awarded the Legion of Honour by France. He was also working
on what I regard as his greatest novel, The Voyage, set in the
Charente region of France, where lived his French translator, Madame
Germaine Delamain. Morgan described the novel as "a fantasy about
a fool of God". Its hero, Barbet, has something in common with
Dostoyevsky's Prince Mishkin from The Idiot. Eiluned Lewis considers
Barbet the "happiest" of all Morgan's people: "a character
with whom the author himself seems in love
a man in harmony with
all living things."
Barbet was partly modeled on Madame Delamain's husband Jacques, a French
soldier of World War One who had "observed from his trench that
the swallows were late that spring", who was an almost saintly
bird-watcher who "went very far into the interior of things"
and who wrote a successful book, Why Birds Sing. Eiluned Lewis
notes that "a new freshness and freedom pervade the novel
For a time a door opened for Charles (as it did for the novel's heroine
Therese whenever she was with Barbet) to a natural and, because natural,
a miraculous world." Barbet, she added, "could perceive 'innocence
overlaid' and the essences of men 'like birds and trees and night and
morning' " and is "the touchstone of the book".
The Empty Room, Menender's Mirror, Reflections
in a Mirror
The Voyage appeared in 1940. During the next six years or so
Morgan experienced mixed success and failure. The short novel The
Empty Room (1941) is generally regarded as a lapse from his standard,
although in my view it still has significant beauties and merits. In
1942 he became an essayist for The Times under the byline Menander's
Mirror. This led to the publication in 1944 and 1946 of two volumes
of essays, Reflections in a Mirror (First and Second Series).
Meanwhile, an ardent Francophile and admirer of General Charles de Gaulle,
Morgan published articles in La France Libre and his name became
potent among members of the French Resistance.
Ode to France
In 1944 Morgan's Ode to France, not an especially successful
piece, for his métier was not verse, was read at the re-opening
of the Comedie Francaise after the Liberation of Paris and received
a standing ovation - a gratified Morgan listening from a box. For some
reason Morgan's writing tended to be more warmly received in France
than in Britain. In 1949 he was elected a member of the Institut de
France (only the second British novelist after Rudyard Kipling to be
The Judge's Story
In 1947 Morgan was awarded an honorary LL.D by St Andrew's University
and published one of his best loved novels, The Judge's Story.
Here we see in the protagonist, Judge Gascony, a character largely modeled
on Morgan's father, Sir Charles Morgan, a profound influence on his
author-son. Sir Charles rose to be president of the Institution of Civil
Engineers, lived well into his eighties and "remained the yardstick
by which his son throughout his life measured a man's integrity and
The Judge's Story, Eiluned Lewis thought, "reflects Morgan's
innate puritanism" - a strange comment to make upon a champion
of romantic love, including its erotic and sensual expressions, even
to the point of defending adultery in such contexts (as in The Fountain
and Sparkenbroke, if not Portrait in a Mirror)! The novel
also contains one of Morgan's few portraits of an evil character. Severidge,
like Blachere in The Voyage, is essentially evil in his cynicism,
his sinning against the human spirit and the Holy Spirit.
The River Line
In 1949 came another novel with a French setting, The River Line.
Its story deals with the smuggling of Allied servicemen out of Nazi-occupied
France. The key character "Heron", Eiluned Lewis notes, "works
for eternity", "travels light with no baggage that violence
can take away" and "suffers loss without losing". Like
Barbet, he is a kind of saint, "able to absolve the guilt of others
by his own acceptances". Some French critics thought that Morgan
had over-romanticized the Resistance.
Morgan throughout his life was a steadfast defender of human freedom
and the right of artists to work entirely free of political constraints.
His "fear of mass thought and the contemporary assault on the individual
mind" had been apparent in The Judge's Story. He now published
a magnificent book of essays, Liberties of the Mind (1951), which
remains one of the best judgements on authoritarianism and totalitarianism
Then in 1952 came a theatre version of The River Line, with an
appended essay "On Transcending the Age of Violence"
which ended with Mazzini's words of 1849: "We must act like men
who have the enemy at their gates, and at the same time like men who
are working for eternity."
Morgan wrote two other full-length plays. The
Flashing Stream (1938) weathered the Munich crisis in London and
then held the stage in Paris for over a year after World War Two. A
long essay "On Singleness of Mind" was appended to
this drama and proved not to the taste of some of his loyal admirers.
The third play was The Burning Glass (1953) and, true to form,
Morgan attached an essay to this, too, "On Power over Nature".
Henry Charles Duffin, who wrote the only book-length study of Morgan
that has appeared in English, The Novels and Plays of Charles Morgan.
(Bowes and Bowes, London, 1959), considered The Burning Glass
the best of the plays and a major work.
A Breeze of Morning and Challenge to Venus
Morgan's best-selling (248,000 or more copies) novel A Breeze of
Morning came out in 1951 and will be considered in the second part
of this essay.
In 1953 Morgan was elected international president of P.E.N., for which
writers' organization he toiled assiduously, possibly hastening his
own death. In 1957 his final novel, Challenge to Venus, appeared.
Eiluned Lewis describes it as " a disappointment" and as "a
tale of futile passion" with "a flat ending". Its hero,
Martin Lyghe, she saw as "the opposite of Barbet". I completely
disagree. In my estimation the novel is composed with the same taut
competence, brilliant character portraiture and richness of imagery
as we find in A Breeze of Morning. It also contains astonishing
correspondences with the world-famous Italian novel, The Leopard,
which Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa was writing in Italy at the same
time and (like Morgan) at the end of his life. Challenge to Venus
is set in Italy and its heroine is an Italian aristocrat.
Darkness and Death
By this stage Morgan's vitality was ebbing. A large novel, provisionally
entitled Darkness and Death, begun in 1949, had been put aside.
Eiluned Lewis comments that Morgan was "becoming isolated, misprized
by the younger writers and intellectuals of Britain". Henry Charles
Duffin, who had previously published books on Thomas Hardy, George Bernard
Shaw, Wordsworth, Browning and the poet Walter de la Mare, was furious
at the depreciation Morgan and his works received at the end of his
He condemned "the studied neglect, in more recent years, of the
critics" and added that "the obituary notices were full of
incredibly obtuse depreciation". The Times had said: "Readers
of Mr Graham Greene, Mr Angus Wilson and the like had little patience
with a view of life so obstinately elevated."
That comment, of course, gives the game away. Morgan was a man of remarkable
goodness, joy and serenity. It is a commonplace that much of the art
and "art" of the Twentieth Century has been obsessed with
wickedness, misery, unquiet turbulence of soul and ugliness. That is
why the greatest painter of that time, Andrew Wyeth, remains relatively
neglected, while the inferior talent of Pablo Picasso, who frittered
his gifts away on buffoonery and deceits, is promoted in his place.
A profound cultural revaluation is needed of the whole Western European
cultural tradition; and I am confident that it will raise up Charles
Morgan to his rightful place.
He is not a novelist or playwright or essayist of the highest order.
It would be silly to claim for him the stature of a Shakespeare or a
Solzhenitsyn. However, he can justly be placed in the middle ranks of
memorable writers as "the English Turgenev". Fascinated all
his life by romantic love and Platonic mysticism, he had at best an
uneasy relationship with so-called Christian orthodoxy. A conservative
liberal rather than a liberal conservative, he came in his later years
to be, like George Orwell, an emphatic opponent of all the modes of
tyranny of the political Left. All of this means that he has had no
big battalions barracking for him, and, I suspect, powerful forces behind
the scenes interested in committing him to oblivion.
Recently I wrote to a senior editor at Penguin Books suggesting that
they should add some of Morgan's works to their list. The reply was
that, as with some other good writers of last century, "his star
has set" and there is insufficient public interest to warrant such
a decision. That is a pragmatic response no doubt justified by current
financial realities. I do not know what other "good writers"
the editor had in mind; but there is, for me, no doubt at all that Morgan's
entire work constitutes a treasure for the British people which should
Republication of Morgan should be a long-term cultural goal of British