Lucy Lethbridge on Denton Welch, A Voice through A Cloud

A Perfect Nightmare

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In 1935, Denton Welch – then an art student at Goldsmith’s College – was knocked off his bike on a busy road just outside Bromley. He spent over a year in hospital and was permanently weakened by his injuries. He died thirteen years later at the age of 33, leaving behind him a few strange but compelling books – all of which obsessively pick over Denton’s recollections of his life before the accident. They culminate in A Voice through a Cloud, a nightmarish account of his months in hospitals and convalescent homes in southern England. He died before he finished it and it ends, with poignant abruptness, in the middle of a paragraph, with Denton sitting, uncertain and in pain, in his doctor’s car which is parked outside a bungalow in Broadstairs.

A Voice, and Welch’s other best-known book Maiden Voyage, are generally described as novels, probably because they do not seem to fit into any other category. Yet there is no fiction in Welch: everything in his writing is refracted through the broken mirror of his own experience, and recounted in the first person in his own peculiar, inimitable voice. Maiden Voyage is an account of Denton’s running away from boarding school, then going out to China where his father was the director of a lumber company in Shanghai. It was the first Denton Welch I ever read and was given to me by a boyfriend. I was gripped by its narrator’s odd-angled eye on the world, but it was a weird kind of book to give as a love token: fastidious, snobbish, voyeuristic and intensely self-absorbed, Welch appears to be more concerned with objects than people.

He was the kind of child who, while his friends were playing cricket, was polishing his parents’ antique furniture, rearranging his collection of ivory snuffboxes or sifting through his mother’s jewellery. From an early age, a lustreware teapot could send him into raptures. His narrative voice was confidently established from the fir

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About the contributor

Lucy Lethbridge’s books for children include biographies of Ada Lovelace (The Computer Wizard of Victorian England) and Annie Oakley (Sharpshooter of the Wild West). She is the literary editor of The Tablet.

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