I first read E H Visiak’s Life’s Morning Hour (1968) about 15 years ago, when all I really knew of him was his essays on David Lindsay. I’d been hoping for more on Lindsay but, despite the book mentioning other literary friends Visiak had (among whom John Masefield is the only name I knew), there’s no mention of Lindsay. (Unless, that is, I take Visiak’s comment at one point, “I could no more describe it than I could describe an unknown colour had I seen one”, to be an indirect reference to the invented colours in A Voyage to Arcturus. The “it” Visiak is talking about, by the way, is a vision of God. But I’ll come to that later.) The thing is, Life’s Morning Hour is about the first half of Visiak’s life, and comes to an end as his literary career is getting started. (There’s no mention, for instance, of other writers he later knew, including Walter de la Mare and Colin Wilson.) But, having recently read Visiak’s weird novels Medusa and The Haunted Island, and having done some research on his life to flesh out my (previously very skimpy) biography of him on my Violet Apple site, I came back to his memoir, this time to learn about him, rather than Lindsay.
But first, is it a memoir? In a post at his Shiver in the Archives blog, Douglas A Anderson calls it “Visiak’s so-called autobiography”, adding it’s “actually a novel (originally titled David Treffry) Visiak tried to market in the very early 1930s”…* But, it’s frankly very bad as a novel. My impression on re-reading it is that its earlier chapters didn’t so much belong to a narrative meant to be read by others, as a man’s private mulling over his earliest impressions and fragments of memory. (Towards the end of the book, Visiak claims he wrote Life’s Morning Hour “to record my childhood, of blissful memory”.) These early chapters are more about intense sensory experiences the very young Edward Harold Physick (as he was born) had of colours, smells, glints of light, textures. They don’t even work as anecdotes, just fragments. And this is the main argument against Life’s Morning Hour being a novel — it has no story, nor even an attempt at one. Even in its later sections, when Visiak covers his miserable time at the Manchester offices of the Indo-European Telegraph Company (for which he worked before the First World War), he doesn’t cast it as a narrative. He mentions his misery but doesn’t fully explain it, then goes away and remembers a few random incidents at the office, comes back to it again, then goes away from it once more. This really is a memoir — a collection of reminiscences — more than it is even an attempt at an autobiography. And, of course, Visiak had written novels by the 1930s, so he knew how to do that, so the idea he wrote this as a novel isn’t very convincing, unless he was attempting something very new and modernistic, and, ultimately, unsuccessful. (What seems more possible is that, having written this memoir for his own amusement, he wondered what to do with it, and tried to place it with publishers as a novel. But I don’t know.)
There are a few frustratingly fictional-feeling aspects to the book, though. Some people’s names are omitted or invented. Visiak is very evasive about the names of family members. He refers to “my literary uncle” a number of times without giving his name, and only late in the book provides a telling footnote to indicate he’s quoting from the Memoirs of W H Helm (which Visiak himself edited, in 1937). Helm was the literary editor of The Morning Post, wrote several books (Jane Austen and Her Country-House Comedy, Homes of the Past: A Sketch of Domestic Buildings and Life in England from the Norman to the Georgian Age), and was married to Visiak’s paternal aunt. Visiak also provides very little information about his father or his father’s family, even though both were successful sculptors, a fact he doesn’t even allude to. (And Visiak spent a lot of time with his grandparents as a boy, it seems.)
Even more fictionalising comes about with Visiak’s changing some names. He mentions, for instance, going to “the Grammar School at Hallingford”, during which time he stayed at the house of a “Mr Blackwaters”. As far as I can tell, there is no such place as “Hallingford”, and the name “Blackwaters” doesn’t appear at all in Ancestry.co.uk. Short biographies about Visiak, though, mention his going to Hitchin Grammar School (a history of which is among his papers at Reading University), but the only definite proof of a school I can find is his and his brothers’ names in the enrolment lists of St Augustine’s School, Westminster, at the age of 10. And this school isn’t mentioned at all in Visiak’s memoir. Certainly, Life’s Morning Hour can’t be entirely relied on as a factual autobiography. But it is interesting, I think, as a means of learning a little bit more about the man — certainly the inner man.
(His brothers get only a few mentions, despite his having six of them. One who does, Noel Gilbert, died of meningitis at the age of 17, and Visiak describes him as having, at the end, ribs like a skeleton, which can’t help recalling, for me, the “Skeleton Antic Lad” of The Haunted Island.)
Visiak took a strong pacifist stance during World War I, registering as a conscientious objector and refusing to take even non-military war work as an alternative, as he didn’t want to have anything to do with war. (There’s a quite comprehensive stack of documents at the National Archives detailing the process he went through.) Life’s Morning Hour traces the origins of his pacifism to a story he wrote, as a Rider Haggard-obsessed boy, in which a Zulu king lays down his weapon on a battlefield rather than continue the carnage — an action which seems to have taken Visiak by surprise. (He went on to read about the treatments of the Zulus under the British, and later wrote a poem about them. When it was published, he was surprised to come home one day to find a Zulu man waiting for him, who was in turn surprised to find the writer of the poem wasn’t a Zulu, as he’d thought the rhythms of the poem could only have come from a fellow countryman.) But Visiak wasn’t a lifelong pacifist, certainly not in the personal sense, as at each of the schools he mentions going to he confronts bullies head on, fighting them as soon as they start to pick on him. But his pacifism in relation to the war was perhaps intensified by two other factors. One was his social conscience, which extended not just to his fellow human beings (and he was always writing not just to newspapers but government bodies, suggesting ways in which people’s suffering might be alleviated, or complaining when bad things were done to them — he wrote to a US newspaper after it reported the lynching and burning of an African American, and received, because of it, several nasty replies). He also became a passionate anti-vivisectionist, at one point contemplating studying physiology (despite having no aptitude in the sciences), just so he could infiltrate animal-testing laboratories and expose their atrocities. It was as a result of this, which became an obsessive idea, that the other factor in his pacifism came about. Worrying how he could achieve this aim of infiltrating vivisection laboratories, yet knowing how ill-suited he was to the task, and so being caught in a situation he couldn’t resolve, he had what he interprets as a sudden vision of God, whom he saw as:
“…an orifice of golden motes… of ethereal fire. It was irregular in shape, curved, extending about half way across the office. At either side, within it, a form was visible… They suggested lions with wings. But it was the form I knew to be, but did not see, in the centre that drew and concentrated my attention…
“It was not a human form, nor was it that of any conceivable creature. Had it been that of an angel with wings in the conventional notion of such a being, I might well doubt the authenticity of the vision, suspecting it to have been of subjective derivation; but it was, as I have said, unimaginable…
“The Appearance was ineffable; it surpassed the human form as the human form surpasses the most elementary form of life. I should say, indeed, that it transcended form. It was awful, adorable, transcendental. It was also, and identically, a sound; a sound alike ineffable, incomparable in soul-enthralling harmony with any musical chord…”
The effect of his vision, oddly, was to make Visiak feel that his grand anti-vivisectionist plan mattered less in the broad scheme of things than simply continuing his day-to-day life, and this released him from his obsessive thoughts on the matter. But it also no doubt strengthened his Christianity, which was, ultimately, the reason he gave for not wanting to participate in the Great War.
Life’s Morning Hour isn’t a wholly satisfying book. It only works as any kind of autobiography if you have a more factual record of his life to hand; most of its content as a memoir is impressive in terms of how he retained intense early childhood sensory experiences, but generally fails to be interesting even at the level of an anecdote, more as a series of poetic impressions. It certainly doesn’t work as a novel, it has no focus of story or conscious development of character. What it reveals about Visiak as a person is its strongest point: the things that were important to him, his formative moments, the people he met and how he interacted with them. (He petitioned on behalf of a sacked alcoholic colleague three times, each time succeeding in getting him reinstated. The third time, the Indo-European Telegraph Company actually decided to take an active hand in the poor man’s care and rehabilitation.)
Certainly not an essential read, then, even for those who’ve enjoyed Medusa and The Haunted Island (which was mostly written, he reveals, on the train to and from work, just as his early Buccaneer Ballads were written at work), but a valuable addition if you want to know more about the sort of man Visiak was.
(* Just to note, this isn’t speculation on Douglas Anderson’s part, but based on the manuscript to Visiak’s unpublished novel, David Treffry, which, it turns out, is basically the same as Life’s Morning Hour, apart from being partly in the third person.^)