Story: Courage, James Francis

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Courage, James Francis

1903–1963

Novelist, short-story writer, poet, bookseller

This biography was written by Grant Harris and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

James Francis Courage was born in Christchurch on 9 February 1903, the son of Frank Hubert Courage, a sheepfarmer, and his wife, Zoë Frances Peache. He grew up on the family farm, Seadown station, near Amberley, becoming a boarder at Mr Wiggins’s preparatory school in Christchurch and later, from 1916 to 1921, at Christ’s College. In October 1923 he entered St John’s College at the University of Oxford; after taking a second-class BA in English, he came down in June 1927.

For the rest of his life Courage would live mainly in England, although he made one extended visit back to New Zealand from about 1933 to 1935, following a lengthy period of convalescence in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Classified as medically unfit, he became a fire warden during the Second World War and from 1940 to 1950 managed a bookshop in Hampstead. Although regarded as excellent company and a ‘lively witty talker’, he nonetheless suffered from depression and from 1951 was nearly always under psychiatric treatment. He kept up with New Zealand friends, especially Charles Brasch and Basil Dowling, and whenever possible played his grand piano daily. He never married.

Courage had begun writing at Christ’s College, and during his time at Oxford he contributed prose and poetry to student publications such as Oxford Outlook and Oxford Poetry , and musical criticism to Isis , a London weekly. His first novel, One house (1933), was written in St Ives, Cornwall, where he lived after leaving Oxford. In October 1938 his only staged play, Private history , was produced in London at the Gate Theatre off the Strand. Despite its encouraging reception, the production was closed by the censor after a brief season, presumably because of its homosexual themes.

Courage found it difficult to write during the war and he was not published again until 1945, when his story ‘Uncle Adam shot a stag’ appeared in English Story , the leading annual collection of short stories. A second novel, The fifth child (1948), was followed by Desire without content (1950), Fires in the distance (1952), The young have secrets (1954), The call home (1956), A way of love (1959) and The visit to Penmorten (1961).

Courage also wrote short stories; his first published was in the London Mercury in August 1926. Later stories appeared in a number of British and American publications, as well as in early numbers of Landfall under Charles Brasch’s editorship. Brasch later chose 15 short stories for publication under the title Such separate creatures (1973).

Three of Courage’s eight novels (the first and the last two) are set in England; the remaining five have a New Zealand setting. These latter books focus largely on characters belonging to a particular group – wealthy Canterbury runholders, and on family relationships, often those between son and mother and, to a lesser extent, between son and father. His main concern is to examine how these relationships shape the child and influence the way he continues to perceive himself and others. Of the New Zealand novels, the most successful is The young have secrets , which portrays a young boy’s bewilderment in the midst of adult complexities at the time of the First World War. A unified and convincing piece of fiction, it is also the work that has survived longest in critical favour.

The novels set in England have similar themes. The most striking is A way of love , which takes as its subject a young man’s homosexual relationship with an older man. Discreet to a fault, and even self-apologetic by modern standards, the novel was banned under the censorship provisions in place prior to the setting up of the Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1964, and was only available to few New Zealanders. In recent times some commentators have viewed it as a milestone in New Zealand writing by gay writers. Published at a time when no other New Zealand writer addressed the themes of sexual orientation and same-sex relationships, except in very indirect ways, Courage’s novel stands out as a brave exception.

James Courage died in Hampstead on 5 October 1963. His ashes were returned to New Zealand and scattered at the mouth of the Waipara River near Amberley.