20 July 2010

Charles Morgan's The Voyage (1940)

Charles Morgan's The Voyage is mainly set in the Cognac area of France, and in Paris in the late 19th century, with brief mentions of Angoulême‎ and Royan. It concerns a man, Barbet, who owns a vineyard and a farm, and, oddly, is also the warden of a tiny private prison attached to his farm. He's in love with the sexually promiscuous singer and dancer Thérèse, who doesn't realize she's in love with him until some years pass, and eventually they come together (but perhaps not definitively) shortly after he's freed the prisoners, for which he is imprisoned, escapes, and is then pardoned because his lover has sung up so much support for him.

Previously, on reading Barbet's letters from Cognac, Thérèse in Paris thinks 'His descriptions [are] not of external things towards which he look[s] outward [...]', and the reader can't fail to think this about Morgan's writing too: the most striking thing to me is the lack of description of physical features, including the characters in the book, as opposed to the massive foregrounding of the psychological: I see why the French took to him so readily, as opposed to the English.

In another letter, Barbet writes:

'Now, if you were in a prison I should let you out if I could, and if a wild bird were in a cage I should open the door, and if an animal were in a trap I should release it. That is simple enough. But I can't stop arguing about the prisoners because, even if I were to give up the prison, that wouldn't set them free....'

This is a strange book, but strangely compelling too. On the wild female side, it's unbridled id, on the repressed Protestant male side it's keep your pants on at all times, but when the two, er, come within close proximity, isn't there a permanent bulge in those pants? Those pesky prisoners are getting more and more fractious, and Morgan doesn't do subtle symbolism, he shovels it on.

Oddly, in 1924, when writing to an Oxford friend seeking advice on writing, Morgan calls 'anything symbolistic' 'infernally dangerous', but then goes on to contradict himself in a way. And it's pretty obvious what he'd have thought of the UEA mafia. Creative writing courses, or whatever they were called in those days, are beautifully snobbishly dismissed:

'They are [for] mostly uncultured men. They are useful to teach bank-clerks the rules of grammar, but they teach no Oxford man anything. Read the masters: that's the only teaching.'

The symbolism can get ovrwhelming, but I find this novel quite exceptional: it's unpredictable, intelligent, inconclusive, very 'modern' (in fact futuristic) in its approach to sex, and at times beautiful in its description of psychological states.


Duffin, Henry Charles, The Novels and Plays of Charles Morgan (London: Bowes & Bowes, 1959)

Lewis, Eiluned, ed., Selected Letters of Charles Morgan (London: Macmillan, 1967)

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