Discovering Charles Morgan, a forgotten British author

The Voyage published in 1940

Charles Morgan, the playwright and novelist, was a household name in the 1930s and 1940s and enjoyed an immense reputation in his lifetime, winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 1940. He had a strong following in France and was awarded the Legion of Honour in 1936 and elected to the Institut of France in 1949 – only the second British novelist after Kipling. Yet his name is almost unknown today.

I was given a copy of his novel “The Voyage” when I was a student. It was, I was told, the best novel ever written. Few books could stand up to such a puff but I was captivated and my copy has travelled with me for the past forty years. I have collected his other novels but “The Voyage” remains my favourite.

“The Voyage” tells the story of Barbet, who owns a French vineyard in the fictional town of Roussignac (probably based on Jarnac in the heart of cognac country), close to Angouleme in the Charente region of France. Morgan describes his book as a “fantasy about a fool of God” and his hero, Barbet, has something in common with Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin from “The Idiot”. The heroine is Therese, the illegitimate daughter of the village priest, who becomes a diseuse – a concept that has no translation in English. It means – very roughly – a pub entertainer, someone who sings and dances in bars.

The story concerns the relationship between these two from Therese’s teenage years in the village in a little bar and her rise to fame singing in Paris, the well-cared for mistress of a wealthy impresario. Therese sings the songs that Barbet writes for her, and this unlikely source of material, rather than the popular musical hall numbers of the day, brings her acclaim. Barbet himself is content simply to produce his cognac, cooper his barrels, listen to the birds and be kind to his prisoners, which rather bizarrely are in a small private prison in one of the courtyards of his house.

This book is beautifully written and it powerfully evokes life in rural France in the late nineteenth century, and the contrasting decadence of Paris. In some respects it reads as if it were a French novel translated into English. Barbet is not portrayed as a comedy figure as a simple country bumpkin as he has considerable status and respect in his own world, despite his eccentricity, and when he visits Paris to sell his cognac he is not in any way fazed by Parisian life. This harmony between country and metropolitan life is very French and it is remarkable that this book was written with such a fine touch by an Englishman, something that seems to have been recognised in France during his lifetime.

What elevates this book from others of the genre and makes it far more than a well-crafted period piece is Morgan’s ability to describe scenes that indelibly imprint themselves in the mind.

There are many such instances in this book. In the prison, Barbet as gaoler is paid to feed and keep confined the six prisoners in cells arranged around a courtyard of his farm. On one occasion, Barbet is late feeding and locking up his prisoners. They have become restless and have begun to riot. Barbet simply cannot believe that his prisoners would mean him any harm and goes into the courtyard without his prison issue pistol. His prisoners set about him in the dark. In the scuffle one of the prisoners grabs a matchbox from Barbet's hand containing glow worms that Barbet collected for his mother, and spills them out. At this point Barbet is more concerned for his glow worms than for his own safety and the prisoners kneel on the cobbles and pick them up. This dissipates their anger and they go to their cells peaceably. This small incident, blown out of all proportion, is regarded by local people as a miracle and evidence of Barbet’s saintliness (or insanity by others) and his reputation spreads to Paris as a result of the songs sung by Therese.

In Therese's circle of sophisticated and bohemian friends Barbet becomes regarded as a kind of prophet and his Protestant simplicity and innate goodness are seen as evidence of an interior wisdom.

The concept of the "Voyage" in the title is the theme that underpins this book. It is Barbet’s belief in liberation - that at some point he must simply walk out from his life,and embark on a voyage, an instinct like a journey a bird takes in migration. It is acting on such an impulse that he liberates his prisoners, an action that briefly results in his own imprisonment. He goes to prison without complaint accepting that he would rather be a prisoner than have the burden of being a gaoler of his fellow men. Yet after a short time he finds the prison doors have been left open, and he can leave the prison. Though technically an escapee, his fame created by the songs sung by Therese means that the government are reluctant to return him to prison and he is not rearrested, a very French example of political pragmatism! He does not return to his vineyard and sells up and moves to Paris to earn his living as a cooper.

This story is much more than a love story. At the end of the book, Therese and Barbet embark on a literal voyage, buying a river boat and setting off into an unknown future.

“Well” she said, “here is our life beginning; together or apart – our life. What shall we do with it? Shall we make a plan?”

“not now,” Barbet answered “When we are ready we shall know what to do”


Other books by Charles Morgan

 Novels

The Gunroom (1919)  This is based on Morgan's experiences in the Royal Navy (1907 to 1913).  The Gunroom created a minor sensation because of its exposure of the habitual mistreatment of junior officers in the Navy.  It was unofficially suppressed possibly as a result of influence from the Admiralty; but it is believed to have resulted in significant reforms

The Fountain (1932)  This is probably Morgan's most famous novel.  It is based on Morgan's experience as a POW under internment in Holland during the Great War. 

Portrait in a Mirror (1929) brought public recognition.  Again autobiographical, based on his childhood and adolescence.  This novel gives a wonderful picture of life in a great British country house at the end of the nineteenth century.

Sparkenbroke (1936) A "big" novel, comparable with The Voyage and The Fountain.  It's hero is a neo-Byronic poet Lord Sparkenbroke.  Though part of the story is set in Lucca in Italy, this book conveys the beauty of the countryside of southern England.  It is a strange novel, with brilliant and profound sequences interspersed with ponderous and even pedestrian phrases.  This is the only one of Morgan's novels to have come close to being made into a film though plans never came to fruition. 

The Empty Room (1941) is generally regarded as a lapse from his standard.

The Judge's Story (1947)

The River Line (1949) another novel with a French setting, which deals with the smuggling of Allied servicemen out of Nazi occupied France.  The key character ("Heron") resembles the Barbet of the Voyage.  This novel was not entirely well-received as many believed that Morgan over romanticised the Resistance.   There was a theare version of this play in 1952.

A Breeze of Morning (1951) was a best seller. 

Challenge to Venus (1957) was his final novel.  It is set in Italy and its heroine is an Italian aristocrat.    

Challenge to Venus

Comments 33 comments

Helen Cater profile image

Helen Cater 6 years ago from UK

What a great first hub you have here about Charles Morgan. I will have to look up some of his work.


essois profile image

essois 6 years ago from Esse, Confolens, France

As a current Engish resident of Charente, I had never heard of this author. I will need to research. Much to learn!


nina 6 years ago

I passionately love "The Judge's Story". It is my all time favorite book in a lifetime of voracious reading. The immense wisdom contained in the last chapter alone, has guided my life. It hit me like a bomb. Now I go on to discover the rest of his writing.


nina 6 years ago

I passionately love "The Judge's Story". It is my all time favorite book in a lifetime of voracious reading. The immense wisdom contained in the last chapter alone, has guided my life. It hit me like a bomb. Now I go on to discover the rest of his writing.


nina 6 years ago

I passionately love "The Judge's Story". It is my all time favorite book in a lifetime of voracious reading. The immense wisdom contained in the last chapter alone, has guided my life. It hit me like a bomb. Now I go on to discover the rest of his writing.


nina 6 years ago

I passionately love "The Judge's Story". It is my all time favorite book in a lifetime of voracious reading. The immense wisdom contained in the last chapter alone, has guided my life. It hit me like a bomb. Now I go on to discover the rest of his writing.


nina 6 years ago

I passionately love "The Judge's Story". It is my all time favorite book in a lifetime of voracious reading. The immense wisdom contained in the last chapter alone, has guided my life. It hit me like a bomb. Now I go on to discover the rest of his writing.


nina 6 years ago

I passionately love "The Judge's Story". It is my all time favorite book in a lifetime of voracious reading. The immense wisdom contained in the last chapter alone, has guided my life. It hit me like a bomb. Now I go on to discover the rest of his writing.


nina 6 years ago

I passionately love "The Judge's Story". It is my all time favorite book in a lifetime of voracious reading. The immense wisdom contained in the last chapter alone, has guided my life. It hit me like a bomb. Now I go on to discover the rest of his writing.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

This book review sounds wonderful. Will have to try and find a copy and read the entire thing. Some of his other books sound good as well. Thank you for this introduction to an author of which I was unfamiliar.


 6 years ago


Rosie M 5 years ago

Little Nell - I enjoyed reading your review of The Voyage, and will try and get hold of a copy. I agree that Charles Morgan is probably due for a come-back - although I don't know how popular he really was in the the 30's and 40's.He was never as successful a writer as C.S.Lewis who I think was a contemporary doing similar stuff.

I recently picked up a copy of The Flashing Stream and on reading the Forward, was struck by how apposite the views he expresses there about women's sexual drive are to the current debate that Stephen Fry has provoked on the same subject on Twitter!

For me the Forward and the essay On Singleness of Mind were more interesting than the play itself. There's certainly food for thought - but my guess is he will always be an acquired taste.


Roger 5 years ago

How splendid to find someone else putting Charles Morgan out on the Web, and with a fine review of 'The Voyage', too! I agree about its being CM's best novel, though the Judge and A Breeze of Morning run it a close second ex aequo. As you can see from the URL window, I have put up (in 2008) a Charles Morgan Website, which I've neglected shamefully of late but will get back to soon. Meanwhile, I'll bookmark your Hub and hope for more. Would you like me to put up a Link to you on the CM site?


John 5 years ago

I first read The Voyage 60 years ago, and it remains the only book that I return to time after time knowing that the magic I felt then will never fade. Also I suppose because Barbet is the kind of person I most admire, and would like to be. I fail by a wide margin.


Blue 5 years ago

I've just found 6 of his novels in a second hand book shop, obviously someone's lifetime collection, I can't resist sets so bought them and am so glad

I did. Think I shall gather the rest of his novels from ebay. Dipping into them on my train journey home I can tell they are going to be good reads. I see by all accounts that he was a very 'serious' writer, who did not go in for frivolity in his works. Good. Good. I'm not in a very frivolous frame of mind lately. I'm about to turn 50. No laughing matter. *smile* So these should be perfect reading for me.


Hannelore Riela-Martinowsky 4 years ago

I first read The Voyage when I was 16. Now I am going on 73,

and I keep returning to it.


Little Nell profile image

Little Nell 4 years ago from Somerset, UK Author

I have just given my copy to my daughter, who has at the age of 32, left a well-paid job to go to sea and is sailing on a Tall Ship to Rio de Janiero. Her voyage can be found on www.lucyandthenewdawntraders.com. Do visit her site, it's well worth reading


LEANDRO RODRIGUES DA SILVA 4 years ago

can somebody help me? I need to know about quotation of Charles Morgan... My MSN is leandro_rsilva2006@hotmail.com. Sorry me, my English is bad!


Graham Wright, Victoria Beach, Nova, Scotia say the best are Sparkenbroke 4 years ago

For me Charles Morgan must be one of the great British Authors. In 2012 no one has a clue who he is. I have been picking up copies through Amazon(UK). Although they come and go at reasonable prices. After reading most of his books I would say Sparkenbroke, Judge's Story & Fountainhead are the best. They take effort but once into the book they are hard to put down.


Connie Johnson 4 years ago

I was given "The Voyage" 60 years ago by a friend and have always

enjoyed it. Knew nothing about it or the author until I looked it up

on the internet today. Glad others like it.


Dex Quoter 3 years ago

Charles Morgan is one of Britain's great forgotten novelists. I read my first CM novel - The Judge's Story - when I was 16 - it was a prescribed book for my senior year. Eleven years later, as a Literature teacher, I discovered that it was one of the novels I had to teach; it remains one of my favourite novels in English. I have been reading his other books and have loved every one of them. CM was a master of the English language; he wrote measured and crafted prose; he had a fascinating view of life and art; and he had the abilty, as a writer, to seduce the reader into wanting to enter into the world he was unfolding in his fiction. I recommend his novels to any reader who is serious about spending time reading something elegant and worthwhile. As a writer, CM is an inspiration to me.


jacqueline thibault schaefer, USA/France 3 years ago

Thank you for keeping this hub alive,

Charles Morgan is is an excellent stylist whose work should be brought back in to the light.


Dex Quoter 3 years ago

Writers, like composers, can suddenly fade into obscurity; then as suddenly be re-discovered and enjoy a resurgence in popularity. How wonderful it would be if Charles Morgan did enjoy just such a come-back. I fear, however, that his style might be too formal and dated now for today's average reader. But, having allowed him to reveal his particular kind of literary magic to you, the reader will not regret having afforded him the opportunity.


Maureen Emerson 3 years ago

When I was writing my biography 'Escape to Provence' I visited the archives of the Comedié Francaise in Paris, in search of papers relating to Charles Morgan's rendering of his 'Ode to France' before General De Gaulle on the reopening of the Theatre at the Liberation. There are one or two contemporary newspaper articles etc., but not a great deal. The archivists hadn't heard of him up to that point!


Michael Maza 3 years ago

I have a 1919 hard copy of Charles Morgan's The Gunroom and was wondering if anyone can tell me what it is worth? It is in quite good condition withh all pages intact.


Little Nell profile image

Little Nell 3 years ago from Somerset, UK Author

Is it a first edition?


Michael Maza 3 years ago

Not sure if it is a first edition. Do not think so. Does not say it is a first edition.


Little Nell profile image

Little Nell 3 years ago from Somerset, UK Author

It will not say so. Look and see on the front page which will give the publication date. If it is a first edition this will be the only date. If it has been reprinted it will say so and give another date or dates.


Michael Maza 3 years ago

It only has the one date. 1919.


Little Nell profile image

Little Nell 3 years ago from Somerset, UK Author

So a first edition. But probably still not worth a lot!!!


Antony Jeffrey 2 years ago

I first discovered Charlrs Morgan when I was 16, 60 years ago! The Fountain was in my parents' bookcase - I know nothing about it or the author but was entranced by its evocation of a world in rural Holland during the First World War where an Englishman had been interned with a Dutch family and took the opportunity he had long sought to live a contemplative life of the mind in an isolated community. Falling in love with the daughter of the family provides a fascinating conflict for the protagonist. For a susceptible adolescent, as I was, the book was a revelation. I have returned to it several times in my life, always with profound admiration for Morgan's delicacy of style and psychological

insights.

Later I read all his novels, most of which enthralled me, but it is the "big three" written in the 1930s: the Fountain, Sparkenbroke and the Voyage, which I believe are his masterpieces and should be regarded as monuments to European sensibility and literature prior to the terrible events and aftermath of the Second World War


Dex Quoter 2 years ago

Ah yes - The Fountain!

Part Two - The Castle - Chapter 6: Who could not be enchanted by Morgan's masterful writing of the tennis match when news is brought of the Battle of Jutland! What clever weaving of psychology, history, and personal turmoil - here is just one passage that shows why we admire this author so much.


hazel161 2 years ago

Sparkenbroke, in its handsome slipcover, was a second-hand bookstore find many decades ago—pre-internet. The story, the mood, has stayed with me, as has that volume. I assumed I was his only living fan. It just occurred to me to google, and I am happy to find that he was an established author, with other works I can track down,and he has not been forgotten.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Comments

    No comments yet.

      Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


      Comments 1 comment

      The Old Hack profile image

      The Old Hack 6 years ago

      Well written hub, I'll add Charles Morgan to my Christmas list straight away. Keep them coming!

        Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

        0 of 8192 characters used
        Post Comment

        No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


        Click to Rate This Article
        working