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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Richard Arthur Warren Hughes (1900-1976)


British playwright, poet, short story writer, and novelist, vice president of the Welsh National Theatre from 1924 to 36. Richard Hughes's play Danger for BBC in 1924 was the first or one of the first written especially for the radio. Hughes published only four novels in his lifetime. His most famous work is A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), a tale of childhood amorality, which was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.

'Has there ever been a revolution which didn't end in less freedom? Because, has there ever been a revolution which wasn't essentially just one more desperate wriggle by mankind to escape from freedom.' (in The Fox in the Attic, 1961)

Richard Hughes was born in Weybridge, Surrey, of Welsh ancestry, the son of Arthur Hughes, civil servant, and Louisa Grace (Warren) Hughes; she had been brought up in Jamaica, where her father was hiding from his creditors and worked as a journalist.

Hughes's early years  were deeply affected by the death of his sister, brother, and father. "There was a load of grief on the still house like a heavy fall of snow," Hughes later said. He was educated at Charterhouse and Oriel College, Oxford, where he met W.B.Yeats, A.E.Coppard, T.E. Lawrence, and Robert Graves. Hughes's first published article, an attack on Alec Waugh's book The Loom of Youth, appeared in the Spectator in 1917. Originally the text was his school essay, which his form master sent to the Spectator.

While still at Oxford, Hughes published a volume of poems, Gipsy-Night and Other Poems (1922). However, Hughes's early ambition was to be a dramatist. After graduating in 1922 he helped to found the Portmadoc (Caernarvonshire) Players. In the same year his one-act play, The Sister's Tragedy, was produced in London at the Royal Court Theatre. George Bernard Shaw described it as "the finest one-act play ever written." By the BBC he was commissioned to write the first original radio drama, Danger, produced by Nigel Playfair in 1924. Hughes's second collection of poetry was  Confession Juvenis (1926).

"It was a kind of paradise for English children to come to, whatever it might be for their parents: especially at that time, when no one lived in at all a wild way at home. Here one had to be a little ahead of timers: or decadent, whichever you like to call it. The difference boys and girls, for instance, had to be left to look after itself. Long hair would have made the evening search for grass-ticks and nits interminable: Emily and Rachel had their hair cut short, and were allowed to do everything the boys did - to climb trees, swim, and trap animals and birds: they even had two pockets in their frocks." (in A High Wind in Jamaica)

In the mid-1920s Hughes suffered from a nervous breakdown. After recovering he wrote A High Wind in Jamaica, which was published first in the U.S. as  The Innocent Voyage. It is an unconventional story of innocence and evil, a kind of chilling revision of R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island.

During a voyage to England seven English schoolchildren are kidnapped by Captain Jonsen and his crew of pirates. The children spend weeks on the schooner sailing the Spanish Main. Most of the story is told from their perspective, contrasting the adult's world and children's thinking. They adjust in the situation and start to like Jonsen, who can only draw two things: ships, and naked women. In one ambiguous scene he draws Emily, one of the children, somewhat in the manner of Rubens on the walls of her bunk. Emily kills a Dutch captain, imprisoned in her cabin, but the pirates wrongly conclude that another girl, the 13-year-old Margaret, is guilty. Eventually the children reach England. Jonsen with his men are captured. Emily's hysterical recollection of the murder is mistakenly used to indict the pirates. Jonsen is hanged, but  ultimately the story has no moral lesson. Hughes's treatment of childhood is said to have ended the Victorian myth of innocence, and paved way for works such as William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

Hughes did not visit Jamaica until after his work had been published. In 1943, when The Innocent Voyage was adapted into a play in New York, a difference arose whether to stress the comedy aspects or a built-up to the tragic ending. Paul Osborn, who preferred the former, eventually replaced Erwin Piscator as stager. "Playwright Osborn has coaxed a good deal of the book's oddity and fun into the theater," observed a reviewer in Time magazine (Dec. 6, 1943). "But from some of its subterraneous horror he shies off, some of it eludes him, and the rest comes through merely as melodrama." In 1965, the novel was made into a film, with the highly unlikely ending in which the chief pirate allows himself to be executed for a murder committed by Emily.

Hughes's interwar years were marked by poor health and travels in different parts of the world. During these restless years, before settling in 1934 in Laugharne in Wales, Hughes travelled widely in the United States and Caribbean, and contributed to literary journals. In 1932 Hughes married the painter Frances Bazley; they had five children.  For a while Hughes lived in Norfork, although he eventually returned to South Wales. His first children's book, The Spider's Palace (1931), which contained twenty fairy tales, was illustrated by George Charlton. Other works followed:  Don't Blame Me! (1940), Gertrude's Child (1966), and The Wonder-Dog (1977). Hughes's travels impressed his book of short stories, In the Lap of Atlas: Stories of Morocco (1979).

In Hazard (1938) was an allegorical novel, set on board a cargo ship in the grips of a hurricane. In the beginning the narrator describes the crew, the difference between deck officers and marine engineers, and the ship, Archimedes, with its well-oiled machinery. However, the hurricane leaves it at the mercy of nature. As in the works of Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene, the dramatic frame leads to the examination of moral questions. Hughes describes individual reactions to the danger, how Captain Edwardes stays calm under presure although for a moment he gets intoxicated by his power over his own fate and the fate of his crew, and how the chief engineer Ramsay MacDonald, who believes that "whit is ayont reason, reason canna comprehen'" tries to save the ship below the deck. When the storm is over, McDonald decides to retire but he accidentally falls over the railing and drowns.

After In Hazard Hughes published no more novels for twenty-three years. The film version of the book (1965) was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, who made such popular Ealing Studios comedies as Whisky Galore (1948) and The Ladykillers (1955). The future author Martin Amis played a juvenile lead, a boy about fourteen. "I didn't know it then but this is a thrillingly good book: an historical novel (the setting is Victorian) about children running wild. As a visit to this theme it is more continuously sinuous and inward (and enjoyable than the Golding). Hughes came to the set at Pinewood. Otiosely tall, Gravesian in cast and colouring and background (they both went to Charterhouse, a public school of louche reputation), accompanied by his wife and perhaps a grown child (Hughes was in his sixties), he was pleased, impressed, tickled (they might have been making Thunderball in the next lot along). His dress was like my costume: oatmeal trousers, oatmeal jacket, straw hat..." (in Experience by Martin Amis, 2000)

Hughes lectured on literature at the University of London, was active in Welsh church affairs, and travelled frequently in Greece and Morocco, where he had a house in the old inner city of Tangier. During World War II Hughes served in the Admiralty. In recognition of his wartime efforts, he was offered the governorship of South Georgia and the Falkland, but he declined the post.  From the mid-1940s until the mid-1950s Hughes was employed as a scrip-writer for the Ealing Studios. He worked also as a teacher, and  book reviewer. With the historian J.D. Scott he collaborated on a section of the Official History of the War dealing with war production. The report was published in 1955.

While at the Ealing Studios he wrote with Jack Whittingham the screenplay for Charles Crichton's film The Divided Heart (1954). Hughes's post-war publications include nonfiction, children's books, and The Fox in the Attic (1961), which was planned to start a trilogy called The Human Predicament, dealing with upper-class English and Germans between the world wars. Collecting material for the project, Hughes made journeys to Bavaria, where he met people who were involved in the rise of Nazism. In 1956 he stayed with his wife, who had  German relations, at Schloss Neuburg which was transformed in the book into the Schloss Lorienburg.  Hughes's son once recalled that when his father was writing the trilogy, "the whole floor of the study was covered with history and reference books – he went to enormous trouble to make sure what he was writing about was right." One of the sources was Ernst von Salomon's book Die Geächteten (1931, The Outlaws), about nihilist Freikorps men of the 1920s, who seek for "war and adventure, excitement and destruction..." (For more information: From Putsch to Purge. A Study of the German Episodes in Richard Hughes's The Human Predicament and Their Sources by Ivo Holmqvist, 2000, pp. 73-95; available as pdf.)

Opening in Wales just after the WW I, the work mingles real and fictional characters, both German and British, and ends with Hitler's Munich beer hall putch. The protagonist is a young aristocratic Welshman, Augustine Penry-Herbert, a dreamer who lives a reclusive life, Hughes's alter ego. He is suspected of having something to do with the drowning of a young girl. Shock and disgust make him leave his family and visit his relatives in Bavaria, who live in an old castle, Schloss Lorienburg. There he falls in love with his cousin Mitzi and also witnesses the rise of nazism. In the attic of the castle hides a half-tame fox, and a young fanatic, Wolff. Hitler is wounded in his attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic, and he plans suicide. Mitzi, who has become blind, enters a convent. The second part,  The Wooden Shepherdess, came out in 1973. It continued the story from the prohibition-era America to the "Night of the Long Knives" in 1934, which led to the elimination of one of Hitler's chief rivals, Ernst Röhm. The third part was left unfinished. In spite of financial encouragement by his publisher, Hughes knew that he was never likely to see it published.

Hughes was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and an honorary member of both the National Institute and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1946 he was made a member of the Order of the British Empire. Hughes's friends included the writers Robert Graves and Kingley Amis, and the painter Augustus John. Graves's nephew Richard Perceval Graves published a three-volume biography of Hughes. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas stayed with Hughes at Castle House in Laugharne, writing there his book  Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940). Most of his later years Hughes lived at Môr Edrin enar Talsarnau in North Wales, where he moved with his family in 1947. Hughes died on April 28, 1976. He was buried at Llanfihangel-y-Traethau, near Harlech.

For further reading:'A Tale of Awe: Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica' by R. L. Friedman, The Hopkins Review, Volume 6, Number 2, (January 2013); From Putsch to Purge. A Study of the German Episodes in Richard Hughes's The Human Predicament and Their Sources by Ivo Holmqvist (2000); Richard Hughes by Richard Perceval Graves (1994); The Art of Richard Hughes: A Study of the Novels by Paul Morgan (1993, paperback); Richard Hughes by R. Poole (1986); Richard Hughes by Richard Perceval Graves (1984); Richard Hughes by P. Thomas (1973); Unofficial Selves: Character in the Novel from Dickens to the Present by P. Swinden (1973)

Selected works:

  • Oxford Poetry, 1921 (ed., with R. Graves and A. Porter)
  • The Sister's Tragedy, 1922 (one-act play)
  • Lines Written Upon First Observing an Elephant Devoured by a Roc, 1922
  • Gipsy-Night and Other Poems, 1922
  • Ecstatic Ode on Vision, 1923
  • Meditative Ode on Vision, 1923
  • Danger, 1924 (a.k.a. A Comedy of Danger; play)
  • Poems / John Skelton, 1924 (ed.)
  • Confessio Juvenis: Collected Poems, 1925
  • A Moment of Time, 1926
  • A High Wind in Jamaica, 1929 (US title: The Innocent Voyage)
    - Rajumyrsky Jamaikassa (suom. Tauno Tainio, 1956)
    - Film adaptation in 1965, dir. by Alexander Mackendric, starring Deborah Baxter, Anthony Quinn, James Coburn, Nigel Davenport, Isabel Dean
  • Burial and the Dark Child, 1930
  • Richard Hughes: An Omnibus, 1931
  • The Spider's Palace and Other Stories, 1931 (illustrated  by George Charlton)
  • In Hazard : A Sea Story, 1938
    - Sattuman kourissa (suom. Kaj Kauhanen, 1959)
  • Don't Blame Me! and Other Stories, 1940
  • The Administration of War Production, 1955 (with J.D. Scott)
  • The Fox in the Attic, 1961
    - Kettu ullakolla (suom. Auli Tarkka, 1965)
  • Liturgical Language Today, 1962
  • Gertrude's Child, 1966
  • The Wooden Shepherdess, 1973 (the sequel to The Fox in the Attic)
  • The Lively Image, 1975
  • The Wonder-Dog, 1977
  • Zion Building, 1978
  • In the Lap of Atlas: Stories of Morocco, 1979
  • Fiction as Truth: Selected Literary Writings, 1983 (edited by  Richard Poole)
  • The Wooden Shepherdess, 1995 (with the unfinished fragment of the final volume of the trilogy The Human Predicament)
  • A High Wind in Jamaica, 1999 (New York Review Books; introduction by Francine Prose)
  • The Fox in the Attic, 2000 (New York Review Books; introduction by Hilary Mantel)
  • The Wooden Shepherdess, 2000 (New York Review Books; introduction by Hilary Mantel)
  • In Hazard, 2008 (New York Review Books; introduction by John Crowley)

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