James Courage is one of those fine writers who, though he enjoyed considerable success in his lifetime, has now more or less slipped from view. None of the eight novels he published between 1933 and 1961 is in print and most of them are impossible to find secondhand. The same goes for a collection of his short stories published in 1973. He is chiefly remembered for A Way of Love, a bold novel about a homosexual relationship that was published in 1959 and became a minor cause célèbre in New Zealand when it was banned there.
Courage was born in New Zealand in 1903, but came to Oxford University in 1922. After graduation, he moved to London and would spend most of his life there, apart from a 17-month period of recuperation back in his home country after he had been treated for tuberculosis in the early 1930s. Although he had a troubled relationship with his parents, they provided financial support for him to pursue a literary career, which he supplemented by working in a Hampstead bookshop. He never found writing easy, and the stress it involved, coupled with equivocal feelings about his homosexuality, led to a breakdown in 1950. Having spent periods in psychiatric hospitals and having undergone extensive Freudian analysis, he died after a heart attack in 1963, aged just 60.
Courage revered Katherine Mansfield, and despite the long years he spent in Britain, five of his eight novels were set in New Zealand. Perhaps the best of these are The Fifth Child (1948) and The Young Have Secrets (1954), both of which drew upon his own childhood. The former is a beautifully observed account of fractured family life, written with wry humour. The latter, which went through several editions and sold some 60,000 copies, opens in 1914 and shares with The Go-Between the theme of a young boy caught up in adult relationships he does not fully understand — though this must be coincidental, since (like all Courage’s fiction) it had been long in the writing and was accepted for publication only a few months after L.P. Hartley’s novel was published. Some of the book’s characters reappear in the numerous short stories that Courage wrote, which were published in leading magazines and anthologies, both in Britain and New Zealand. His only produced play, Private History, was widely praised when it was premiered at the Gate Theatre in 1938, but was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain for a transfer to the West End because it dealt with homosexuality in a public school.
Courage’s diaries, which he kept intermittently throughout his life, were embargoed for 30 years after being placed in a library by his sister. They run to around 400,000 words, 90,000 of which have been selected by Chris Brickell for this handsomely produced volume. The principal omission is an extremely long account of Courage’s Freudian analysis, and the few samples Brickell includes suggest that this was a wise decision, though they provide a hair-raising account of therapeutic approaches to homosexuality at this period.
Courage nevertheless found this therapy helpful. On the one hand, he believed that homosexuality was innate and as natural as heterosexuality; on the other hand, it induced feelings of guilt, which he largely attributed to his father, a sheep farmer, who considered the young James a sissy. It didn’t help that Courage’s romantic life, though busy, was often unlucky. The great love of his life, whom he had met on a train in 1930, went to South America and subsequently married, while two other lovers died in the second world war, one on active service, the other by suicide. There were many other affairs, usually with men considerably younger than him, but in spite of a wide circle of friends, he considered the homosexual condition an essentially lonely one. More oppressed by his own psychology than by the law, Courage nevertheless provides an invaluable and detailed record in the diaries of what it was like to be homosexual in Britain at a time when it was illegal, with many telling vignettes of queer life in London.
The diaries’ description of living through the Blitz is equally vivid, though hardly supports the popular propagandist slogan that ‘London Can Take It’. As bombers fly over the capital, its citizens exist in ‘conditions of animal apprehension… reverting to a kind of feral individualism’. Considerable and fascinating light is also thrown upon the origins and creation of Courage’s fiction, about which he remained insecure. When a (heterosexual) reader praised A Way of Love, he noted: ‘For a few minutes I felt a real writer, with a body of work behind me, a stay against paranoid spasms of worthlessness.’
These diaries are themselves the work of a real writer, and a very welcome addition to that body of work. Meticulously edited and compulsively readable, they include passages of writing as accomplished, and as evocative of time and place, as anything in Courage’s unduly neglected novels and stories.
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