I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hesitant at first as Bowles’ work was very well written but I just didn’t like the characters. Thankfully, Welch’s characters were a bit more accessible for me. This is two shorter stories so I’ve separated my response into two parts. The publisher provided a copy of this book and I received no compensation for my honest opinion.
The one over-arching them the two pieces have in common is the idea of sexuality, specifically homosexuality, before it was commonly talked about and/or accepted. I tried (aka did a brief google search) to find out about Welch’s sexuality, but again this was a long time ago before our out and proud mantras of today. Welch died young, he was only 33, and there is only speculation outside of his written works which in today’s society seem pretty explicit. Regardless, I enjoyed both of these snippets of the past for completely different reasons.
In Youth Is Pleasure
This story fascinated me. If I didn’t know this was a republished novel I would wonder at its striking similarities to The Secret Fruit of Peter Paddington by Brian Francis. Now I’m wondering where Francis got his story from!
The story follows Orvil, a precocious young teen if ever there was one. He’s confident in who he is and what he wants and somehow simultaneously incredibly unconfident and fragile. There was a great line,
“Orvil wished passionately that he had no body, so that these remarks could never be applied to him. He felt ashamed of being in a position to be deprived of his manhood.” (Loc. 901)
that really highlighted this duality. He loved being a boy, his obsession with a book on the body and his own religious zeal in perfecting his (from push-ups and ice baths to flagellation) he’s obsessed with it. But this is in contrast to his more feminine obsessions of dancing, older men and stealing lipstick.
What I really enjoyed about this novel was that Dench wrote about the myriad confusions faced by so many gay men regardless of the age. The confusion of attraction, of feelings, of societal expectations and of familial relationships. The two families we see in the story were fascinatingly non-traditional for different reasons and I their peculiarities were fantastically written.
The only thing I did not like, unfortunately, is a direct result of the time period. The end of In Youth Is Pleasure rather than being a grandiose coming of age and accomplishments was really a buckling down and flying under the radar so as to survive. And don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with this, but having spent the last few years reading hopeful LGBT stories and happily ever after or happy for now stories, the idea of going back to the tragic youth of before is a bit disheartening.
In Youth Is Pleasure Opening Line: “One summer, several years before the war began, a young boy of fifteen was staying with his father and two elder brothers at a hotel near the Thames in Surrey.”
In Youth Is Pleasure Closing Line: “And so Orvil smiled on everyone, kept the comfortable well-fed smile on his face, fixed it there and let it broaden, while the train skimmed and trembled over the lines back to school.” (Whited out – highlight to read.)
I Left My Grandfather’s House
As sure as I was about In Youth Is Pleasure, I’m a little less sure about this one. I enjoyed it and found the idea of a walking tour fascinating, but I’m just not sure I understood it.
I’m pretty sure this was a nonfiction essay about his own walking tour, but as I read through it honestly felt a bit like a scathing criticism of the British countryside and populace, a la Crome Yellow. I only say this because it honestly felt like anything that could go wrong did go wrong and the narrator saw the worst-of-the-worst of people, places and things. That being said, Wench definitely made me want to go on a walking tour!
“The moor now looked so enticing that I longed to be off, across it, leaving all houses behind. The air was softer, warmer, more milky than ever, and all the blended, tweed colours of the hills seemed to be floating on the haze.” (Loc. 3106)
Seriously, I like the moors already, but that description just made me ache to be wandering across them. And my mind immediately turned to never having the chance to hike Hadrian’s Wall when I was there and so hopefully I can get back and hike it (after a lot of prep work obviously sheesh.)
What I found particularly interesting about this selection was how the older man who seemed to hit on the narrator was portrayed as much more lecherous, than in In Youth is Pleasure,
“‘What are you going to give me for the ride, it’s worth something to you, the ride, isn’t it?’…The wheedling from the strong lusty man enraged me; everything had been spoilt by his trying to extract money, and I had been enjoying myself so much.” (Loc. 3024)
Perhaps this was creatively planned by the publisher as a juxtaposition to the light-hearted and very homoerotic intergenerational instances from In Youth is Pleasure, but this instance was very creepy and so much less obvious. The narrator in this selection has NO idea the man seems to be propositioning him, whereas Orvil in the first selection seems to have purposefully gone out of his way to put himself into compromising positions.
I Left My Grandfather’s House Opening Line: “In the summer of 1933 I started out for my first walking tour.”
I Left My Grandfather’s House Closing Line: “It’s like the Paul Nash I saw when I was fourteen.” (Whited out – highlight to read.)
I’m not sure what scholars have to say about Dench, but it would definitely be interesting to read analysis of his works. I know I would definitely recommend you check them out. Even if they are a bit dated and frozen in time, they provide an excellent glimpse into mid twentieth pre-World War II homosexual coming of age and discovery. And that doesn’t even touch on Wench’s fantastically simple and beautifully descriptive writing.
Additional Quotes from In Youth Is Pleasure and I Left My Grandfather’s House
“Orvil would do nothing but turn away and scowl. He hated other people to imagine that they understood his mind because he was a boy.” (Loc.400)
“Orvil had the whimsy fancy that the instruments were whining and complaining to the musicians, trying to escape their duty, like boys who think that a master has set them too much ‘preparation.'” (Loc. 1439)
“I opened Wuthering Heights which I had brought with me, but I felt again that it is a pity and a waste to read a book for pure pleasure, more than once. Read it to study it, read it to know it, but do not read it only for delight again, I thought.” (Loc. 2604)