James Courage Diaries, edited by Chris Brickell (Otago University Press, 2021), 416pp, $45
James Courage’s name may be little known to younger generations today, but in 1955 he was hailed as ‘the best living New Zealand novelist’. Seven years later, the importation of his novel about a homosexual love affair, A Way of Love, was notoriously banned by New Zealand Customs.
Courage kept a diary for some forty-three years, starting in 1920 when he was sixteen, and in this book, editor Chris Brickell reproduces almost a quarter of his diaries’ estimated 400,000 words. In his very useful Introduction, Brickell states that he has excluded ‘some long transcriptions of other authors’ writing—pieces of novels and poetry—which Courage often copied into his own diaries’.
Born in 1903, James Courage was the first son of Frank and Zoe, who ran a sheep station in North Canterbury. With his father’s agreement and regular financial support, he went to Oxford University at the age of seventeen to gain an education and become a writer. Living far from his family also enabled him to live his own life as a homosexual man. By the time he died in 1963, he had eight novels and a number of short stories to his name, and he had also written plays that were successfully staged.
An image of the first page of his first diary is one of the well-chosen illustrations in the book. It is emblazoned:
– For “MYSELF” and no other –
and in an early entry (21 March 1920) he announces, ‘What do I live for? My music, yes. That is all I look forward to, the brief hour a day when I am at my piano and am happy.’ Growing up, he had often been unhappy, as he was at secondary school in Christchurch; the next entry on 20 May 1920 poignantly remarks:
I am staying with such a happy family. They are, to me, the very essence of married happiness and they have been married 25 years. Every morning he goes off to the office after kissing his wife and children most fondly. When he comes home they rush to meet him and bring him in by the fire where his slippers have been warming for him.
There is a degree of youthful cliché here, and a much later entry says more realistically—but also sadly—what Courage came to discover as an adult:
9 March 1944
I have always been a solitary person and have always felt and been most at ease and happiest when alone. It is only the sexual instinct that has time and again wrenched me out of line, so to speak. The effort to make parallel lines meet—mine and some other’s—has caused me a vast amount of unhappiness. The marriage of true minds … has certainly not come my way.
The Diaries confirms the effort Courage devoted to achieving ‘the marriage of true minds’. Under ‘lovers’, the excellent Index lists ten men by name and half a dozen identified only by their initials, as well as references to others whose names were not recorded by Courage in his diaries. His love affairs took a recurrent pattern of ecstatic encounter, brief enjoyment and the heartache of parting. The most important loves of his life seem to have been Frank Fleet (whom he called ‘Paco’, the Spanish diminutive for ‘Francisco’), Chris Huth, Ivan Alderson and Stuart Hurrell. He lost Frank to marriage and fatherhood; Chris was killed on active service during the War, and Ivan took his own life. With Stuart, however, he developed what Brickell describes as ‘a comforting, familiar routine’ that supported him in his last months.
His diary also documents a number of other important but non-sexual friendships, for instance with Charles Brasch, with Basil Dowling and his wife Margaret, with his long-term housekeeper Mrs Timmons, and with a neighbour, ‘Mrs B.’, whom he came to think of as his ‘foster-mother’. He comments (7 December 1960) that ‘I have many friends. I have my sexual relation with S. I have my filial relation with Mrs B.—more, in fact, than have many neurotics in my state.’
Courage was a prolific writer; besides his eight published novels, over thirty short stories and one successful play, there were also eight unpublished prose works, some of which have been lost. Throughout the fifteen years between his first and second published novels, he worked on fiction, poems and plays with a diligence that impressed Brasch. In his memoir Indirections, Brasch wrote that Courage ‘sat down regularly every morning to write his three pages or so’, a routine he maintained even during the Blitz, when London was under seemingly endless attack by bombers and then by the V1 and V2 rockets.
Despite his remarkable industry, in a diary entry for 16 October 1942 he listed what he saw as the ‘Reasons for my failure as a writer’: first, that publishers were not interested in books set in New Zealand; second, that he was unable to fake relationships between men and women, being ‘profoundly homosexual’ himself; third, that he lacked inventive powers to overcome these difficulties; and fourth, that he possessed what he thought of as his ‘[l]aziness, undue sensitiveness and lack of ambition’.
Courage’s first novel, One House, was published by Gollancz in 1933, but it was not until the war was ending that he discovered his own way of writing about New Zealand and found publishers willing to take his work. The Fifth Child was published in 1948. Six novels followed, the last in 1961, but this run of success after so many years was achieved only with great difficulty. On 7 November 1955, he wrote: ‘Finished the typing of my new novel …’ (its working title was After the Accident, but it became The Call Home). He went on:
Why then am I in so nervous and anxious a state? Because I fear rejection; also I have faked certain scenes in the narrative of the new book. I am not really interested in a heterosexual love-affair, as depicted. It doesn’t involve me. In so far as I’ve treated it at all intimately it is a concession made to the public—a concession for which I despise myself.
Courage had been in psychotherapy off and on since about 1950, and in June 1956 he reported:
… my mental health has been better during this month than for at least twelve years past. For once, the long analysis I have been undergoing has appeared to be getting somewhere—I seem to have made a human relationship with at least one person (the psychiatrist) that does not cause me misgiving, pain and anxiety. This has never—and I repeat that sad word never—happened to me in my whole life hitherto … God help me to persevere, to recover, to live with less anguish. In the course of my life I have uttered the words ‘I love you’ to about six people. I have never heard them uttered to me in return—never, not once.
The following year Courage began to see a Freudian analyst, Dr Larkin, who tried to ‘cure’ him by teaching him to hate his parents for ‘castrating’ him. He documented this experience in ‘granular and often repetitive detail’ in 1000 pages titled ‘Diary of a Neurotic’. Thankfully, Brickell has included only ‘a small representative selection’ of this account and records in his Introduction that Courage had great difficulty reconciling this view of his parents with their continued affectionate and generous support throughout those years.
Around this time, he began work on his seventh book, provisionally titled In Private, and by January 1958 he would write: ‘Finished typing and revising the book (I suppose I must call it a novel) … No other book I’ve written has given me such trouble, such doubts, and such hard labour …’ Ten days later, as he notes, his agent had read it and written back enthusiastically ‘“… I think we should publish and be damned because it stands up in its own right as a piece of writing.”’ Courage’s wary response, after so many reversals, was ‘Well, so far, so relatively good, or at least satisfying. I am over one hurdle’.
The next diary entry we are given is dated 11 January 1959:
Publication day of A Way of Love. This book had given me immense trouble to write (or had induced in me immense guilt, which may amount to the same thing) and I had got to the point, last week, of wishing I could withdraw it before publication …
The book itself … is sad, sad, sad. I didn’t really feel this when I was writing it—it seemed ‘realistic’—but I see it now, and other people have already seen it. Again, so be it. Homosexuality, for all its flippant and amusing sides is a tragedy for the individual (who cannot change his true inclination, try how he may) … yet I suppose I had to write the book, had to publish it, had to feel as I do. It was in me and had to come out.
Chris Brickell describes A Way of Love as Courage’s ‘queer tour de force’, both ‘a landmark novel for a New Zealand author and an exceedingly rare bird in the English context’. Although some conservative reviewers were very critical of the book, many of its readers wrote enthusiastically to the author, which he commented on in his diary. One such letter is reproduced as an illustration in the book.
James Courage’s diaries tell us much about this passionate, ambitious, troubled man, but it is, by necessity, a partial account of his life as a gay man. Brickell has done us a great service with his Introduction, in which he fleshes out the story in reference to Courage’s other unpublished writings as well as to family correspondence, and for this he deserves our thanks.
We can all be thankful that Courage kept up his diaries, and preserved them, for so many years and that his sister Patricia, as his Executor, put them in the Hocken Library in 1975, under a thirty-year embargo. Brickell has repaid Patricia’s dedication to her brother by presenting Courage to us today as a survivor of those years of unnecessary discrimination against people, simply because of who they wanted to love.
ALAN RODDICK is an Ōtepoti Dunedin poet whose third collection, Next, Poems 2016–2021 was published by Otago University Press in 2022.