Time to sample a new writer’s work. After two rewarding months in the company of old chestnuts WG Sebald and Virginia Woolf, next on my reading list is Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage. Des, curator of The Far South Project Blog, brought Welch’s work to my notice in his round-up and Judy Kravis at pocketbook rather wonderfully juxtaposed Walser and Welch recently.
The opening pages of Welch’s Maiden Voyage offered up this sentence: ‘I kept waking up so that my dreams were mixed up with the wallpaper, and somehow the Virgin Mary appeared and disappeared, dressed all in Reckitt’s blue.’ Of course, Wilde’s ‘this wallpaper will be the death of me – one of us will have to go’ comes to mind, wrongly attributed as his dying words. Using the brand colours of a laundry whitener to locate in a reader’s mind the precise blue worn by the Virgin Mary is exquisite, as is the idea of dreams being mixed up with wallpaper, in a room described moments earlier with its ‘warm and depressing’ pink tones.
Denton Welch moved in similar circles to Virginia Woolf and it seems only her suicide that stopped them ever bumping into one another.
Before I leave Woolf’s The Voyage Out behind, I ought mention that I found Helen Ambrose one of the most fully-developed, living, breathing characters I’ve met so far in a novel, more tangible even than Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. It wasn’t any surprise to read in the Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction that Helen Ambrose was ‘accepted by Virginia and Vanessa as a portrait in some salient aspects of Vanessa’. Her intimate understanding of her sister poured into a fictional creation gives Helen extraordinary depth. To have read Moments of Being and the early Woolf diaries is to appreciate the degree to which The Voyage Out is, like many first novels (at least to informed readers), is ‘drawing from life’. The novel itself is a bit contrived but far from a minor novel. Forster summed it up well as ‘strange, tragic, inspired’.