Charles Morgan and his Breeze of Morning
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.
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 reforms.
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.
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
After taking a degree at Oxford, Morgan in 1922 became assistant drama
critic for The Times and in 1926 principal drama critic.
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 years.
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
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".
Empty Room, Menender's Mirror, Reflections in a Mirror
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 so honoured).
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 application".
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.
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 ever composed.
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.
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 life.
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 be preserved.
Republication of Morgan should be
a long-term cultural goal of British nationalists.