REVIEW by James Lloyd20/06/2012
The Happy-go-lucky Morgans
by Edward ThomasThe Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans
anticipates many of the anxieties that would go on to define the period known as Modernism.
Three years earlier, in 1910, Virginia Woolf declared that human character had changed, and that this was not a ‘sudden and definite’ occurrence, but something nascent. It would affect ‘politics, conduct and literature’. Language would be reordered to better reflect the discoveries being made in science, developments in technology and our subsequent experience of the world.
These preoccupations are not obvious in Thomas’ novel. However, they are discernible in the commentary provided by Arthur Froxfield, the novel’s main protagonist, and one of the many characters employed to embody aspects of the author’s personality. From his observations and remembrances it is clear that, like Hamlet, he is witness to a ‘time out of joint’.
Abercorran House, home to a Welsh family around which much of the book orbits, is located in Balham, south-west London. It represents the old Newtonian universe of order, and as Arthur reminisces, obsessively cataloguing the items located within many of its rooms, he connects the lives of those living there with the routines of the house, and describes the protective role of The Wilderness, Abercorran House’s garden. It is as if Arthur is trying to make these labels stick, but at the same time acknowledges that his ‘words are useless’.
The history of the house, its various occupants and visitors expands as Arthur exchanges remembrances with its one ‘permanent servant’, Ann, a woman who ‘has never decided what is truth’. Having returned intermittently in the twenty years since the death of one particular member of the Morgan family had set him ‘painfully free’, he arrives at the beginning of the novel to find that Abercorran House achieved a degree of immortality: the street on which the house lies has been given the same name. ‘Strangers to that neighbourhood… must often wonder at the name’, says Arthur.
It derives from a Welsh town, described by Arthur as having a ‘long grey and white street, with a castle at one end, low down by the river mouth, and an old church high up at the other.’ Keen observers may recognise this picture, for Abercorran has not changed much in a century. It was the original township name of Laugharne, which changed after the English Civil War.
Arthur’s return to Abercorran House, along with his admission that ‘only Ann was left’, offers the sense that he and the others who lived at or frequently visited the house had been expelled from it. This is a theme that is revisited throughout the book, and not just from Abercorran House, but the landscape ‘supernaturally beautiful’, a veritable Eden.
Nature figures heavily throughout the book in vast descriptive passages. The elm trees, jackdaws and the three-acres of The Wilderness, along with the ‘impenetrable hedges and unscalable fences’ appear to protect Abercorran House from the world. But on his return, Arthur notes that with the Morgan family having left, and the trees ‘every one of them gone, and with them the jackdaws’ (in Welsh folklore the jackdaw was considered sacred as it nested in church steeples), the house had been left ‘deserted and silent’. It is evident early on that the house had been a place of shelter, providing sanctuary to its inhabitants from the excesses of modern life.
All of the adult men frequenting Abercorran House are eccentrics of one kind or another, unable to put themselves into a viable relationship with the world. Anecdotes related or frame-narrated by Arthur about Mr Morgan, Mr Stodham and the Italian, Aurelius, lapse into allegory and fantastic tales, while Mr Torrance’s narrative, which lies at the heart of the novel, is ponderous and disrupts the momentum developed in the first half of the book.
Thomas’ writing is at its sharpest when Arthur shares his childhood remembrances, in the scenes with, Philip, the eldest Morgan child and Thomas’ superior alter ego (‘the best runner in the school’ and Thomas’ ostensible doppelganger in ‘The Other’).
Given that much of Thomas’working life was taken up writing about the work of others (he would review up to fifteen books a week), it is perhaps no surprise that The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans
is a lop-sided novel. The ambition is admirable. A number of readings are possible. However, many of the more interesting storylines are not developed. We learn no more about the ‘strange girl’ drawn out dead from the pond in The Wilderness one morning. Likewise, David Morgan, a proto-Modernist anti-hero, is not given enough time to develop.
As 1913 drew to a close, Robert Frost encouraged Thomas to use extracts from his prose work as the basis for his poetry. The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans
serves as a means to an end.
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