Richard Hughes

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Richard Hughes

The British author Richard Hughes (1900-1976) rose to fame in the late 1920s and 1930s upon the publication of his best-selling and critically acclaimed first novel, A High Wind in Jamaica. By the end of his life he had completed four novels-along with a selection of plays, poems, and children's tales-and held a prominent place among his literary contemporaries.

Richard Hughes was born in the the English town of Caterham, Surrey on April 19, 1900. Although he wrote fondly of his childhood in England, Hughes became acquainted with mortality and loss at an early age. His birth preceded the death of a brother, Arthur Warren Collingwood Hughes, by only eight days. His older sister, Grace Margaret Lilias, died in 1902. When the boy was five years old he lost his father, Arthur Hughes, who had worked in the Public Record Office. The elder Hughes had undergone cauterization of his vocal cords as a treatment for cancer of the throat, but his end came suddenly as a result of pneumonia. This final and significant loss left Hughes and his mother, Louise Grace Warren Hughes, in a poor financial situation that the widow strove to rectify by writing fiction for magazines.

Louise Hughes amused her son with stories that captured his imagination. She told him about Jamaica, the wild and beautiful island where she had lived until she was a girl of ten. It wasn't long before young Hughes began to create his own compositions. In fact, he began to "write" before he learned how to read or to pen the words, reciting newly minted poems to his mother, who would then commit them to paper. By the age of seven he was composing rhymed quatrains that demonstrated a powerful knack for visualization and, it would seem, a wisdom beyond his years.

Educated traditionally, Hughes embarked on a study of Greek as a ten-year-old in preparatory school. He also learned Latin, to which he had been introduced at an even earlier age. The boy's godfather, Charles Johnson, was a scholar of Medieval Latin and, like Hughes' father, worked in the Public Record Office. He served as a model and mentor for Hughes, who excelled in academics. Awarded a scholarship, Hughes was invited to attend Charterhouse, a reputable secondary school, in 1913. Hughes was groomed at Charterhouse to become a military cadet; he attended an Army training camp upon graduation. Although Hughes expected to be posted in France and perhaps to die on the battlefield during World War I, an abrupt and welcome armistice saved the young man from such a fate.

Published Stories, Poems, and Plays

Hughes was now free to resume his studies. Following his wishes, he matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1919. Here he kept company with many up-and-coming writers of his day, including Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, and T. E. Lawrence. At Oxford Hughes published many of his own compositions, including essays, poems, short stories, and reviews. He gained considerable recognition as a playwright. Several of his plays were staged and he joined in an effort to create a Welsh National Theatre (Hughes considered himself to be, at heart, more Welsh than English). He served as co-editor (with Robert Graves and Alan Porter) of Oxford Poetry in 1921, and was credited with writing the first radio play, entitled Danger, which aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1924. The latter experience cemented an association with the BBC that Hughes would enjoy all his life. The radio network broadcast his stories and plays, as well as talks with the author.

While the 1920s was a time of growth and progress for Hughes as a writer, it was also a period in which he began to satisfy an appetite for world travel. He voyaged to America in a ship packed densely with European emigrants seeking a new life. After a three-week stay in New York and New Jersey, he returned to England to publish The Diary of a Steerage Passenger, a chronicle of his experiences both on board and off. He also traveled to Canada, Africa, and the Balkans, always preferring to see a rougher side of life and working to shed a British gentility that he found limiting.

Hughes' wanderlust, however, never exceeded his desire to write. The British publisher Chatto and Windus approached him when he finished his studies at Oxford, contracting him to produce a first novel, which he chose not to begin until reaching the age of 25. Prior to starting his novel, Hughes arranged for the publication of his early works, sending three manuscripts to the press: Confessio Juvenis, a collection of poetry; The Sisters' Tragedy, a selection of plays; and A Moment of Time, a book of short stories.

Literary Fame

In his 25th year, as planned, he began writing what was to become A High Wind in Jamaica, a novel chronicling the 19th-century escapades of a group of children who are captured by pirates while sailing home to England. Here the extravagant tales recounted by his mother entered fully into Hughes' fictional work. The author had never visited Jamaica (though he would do so later in life), yet he insisted that lack of firsthand knowledge only enhanced his ability to write about the place. There was no disputing that A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929 as The Innocent Voyage, was an enchanted work-and one that catapulted Hughes to literary fame and widespread popularity.

The novel's readers, however, would remain largely unaware of a certain hardship that the author encountered while writing this celebrated work. Just as he was to begin the novel, Hughes suffered a nervous breakdown. Its onset was sudden and acute, though little else is known of his condition at the time, since Hughes declined to write or speak at length about his affliction. In his work Richard Hughes: Novelist, biographer and critic Richard Poole bases his understanding of Hughes' illness on the little writing that Hughes later devoted to the topic, commenting: "[The nervous breakdown] appears to have been brought on in part by living with his mother, in part by the demands of writing. … " The breakdown of 1925 was only the most prolonged manifestation of a psychic complaint which troubled him on and off during his twenties. He was fond of remarking that the illness acted on him like a stimulant, claiming that The Sisters' Tragedy was written during an attack of appendicitis. … The illness of 1925 was not to be trifled with, however. Hughes's infirmity marked an interruption-not a termination-of his work on the novel. When he was ready to begin writing again he did so very slowly. Ultimately, Hughes traveled to generate a jolt of energy. He restarted the novel in earnest during a six-month stay on an island in the Adriatic, and he concluded it in a frame house in New Milford, Connecticut. Thus, four years after his convalescence, Hughes produced the novel that created an instant sensation upon its appearance on the literary scene.

Hughes was not one to bask in the limelight of his widespread fame; rather, he almost immediately took the opportunity to travel again, preferring Morocco to the as yet unexplored terrain of celebrity. He did not turn away from the many new career possibilities that opened up to him after his success, however. Throughout the 1930s, he wrote regularly as a columnist and a reviewer for the Spectator, the New Statesman, and other renowned publications. His second novel, In Hazard, absorbed him during this time, as did his courtship and marriage, in 1932, to Frances Bazley, a painter from Gloucestershire.

The couple lived briefly in Tangier, then returned to England to start a family. A son, Robert, and two daughters, Penelope and Lleky Susannah, entered the world prior to their father's publication of In Hazard, another adventure at sea, which he completed in 1938. (The bulk of the novel was written atop an 18th-century watchtower in Laugharne Castle where the family lived.) Another daughter, Catherine Phyllida, and a son, Owain Gardener Collingwood, arrived in the early 1940s, during which time Hughes joined the Admiralty (the administrative department that governed British naval affairs) as a civil servant. He was eventually named chief priority officer and carried out his duties until the end of the Second World War.

The Human Predicament

Although Hughes had a chance to further explore his interest in maritime culture through his involvement with the Admiralty, the wartime climate was not conducive to writing, and the author's craft suffered from disuse during this period. He did, however, conceive the idea for a trilogy of novels, The Human Predicament, which he would not begin to write for several years. After the war he took part in the writing of an official history of the Admiralty, a dry work that, though useful to historians and war administrators, did little to exercise Hughes' imaginative powers as a writer.

Hughes had a chance to put his creative skills to use once again when, in 1950, a British filmmaking studio asked him to script a story that it had purchased. Although he refused to write love scenes (a woman was called in to do these), and although he disliked the offhand manner in which his script was later revised and altered, Hughes developed a penchant for the art of screenplay writing. He doctored a script that the studio had set aside, and he conceived and wrote The Divided Heart, a screenplay of his own. When the studio closed in 1954, however, Hughes' short-lived career in film came to an end. Eleven years later he was to see his own story, A High Wind in Jamaica, adapted for the screen.

It seemed that Hughes' writing pace slowed as the years went on. He delivered a series of lectures on the art of fiction and contemporary literary theory at Gresham College of the University of London in the mid-1950s, during which time he finally began to work on The Human Predicament, a trilogy that would absorb him for the next 20 years of his life. From 1955 to 1961 he wrote the first volume, The Fox in the Attic, which was received warmly by critics, some of whom compared him to epic novelist, Leo Tolstoy. But Hughes spent twice as many years writing his second volume, The Wooden Shepherdess, which finally appeared in 1973. The trilogy was to span the years between the two world wars, but Hughes never lived to complete it.

By December 1975 Hughes had become too ill to write any longer, and by March of the following year he was hospitalized for leukemia, the disease that would ultimately take his life. He died, surrounded by a family, in Moredrin, Wales on April 28, 1976, at the age of 76. In his obituary, the New York Times printed a 1962 quote in which the author described writing as "a race between the publisher and the undertaker." Although the undertaker won out before the final volume of The Human Predicament went to press, the publisher had triumphed enough previously to leave the world with a rich (albeit slim) legacy of Hughes' works.

Further Reading

Graves, Richard Perceval, Richard Hughes: A Biography, Andre Deutsche, 1994.

Morgan, Paul, The Art of Richard Hughes: A Study of the Novels, University of Wales Press, 1993.

Poole, Richard, Richard Hughes: Novelist, Poetry Wales Press, 1986.

New York Times, April 30, 1976. □

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