Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Sir Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill and The Dark Forest

In the 1944, October 17th edition of the The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror there was a review of Sir Hugh Walpole’s play The Cathedral. “Paul Lorraine,” it reported, “was magnificent as the self-centred embittered old archdeacon…who, suffering under the illusion that everyone is up against him, brings his egotistical castle in the clouds crashing around him.” The acting of Constance Chapman, who played his wife, was described as “sensitive” while Malcolm Farquhar “gave a convincing picture of a hot-headed, impetuous youth.” In The Daily Mail of November 17th 1947, the choice of The Old Ladies, adapted from a Hugh Walpole novel, by the Wyke Players was described as “courageous.” It went on to say “…those who played the three old ladies in the basement deserved great credit.” In January of the following year, the Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror reported on a less than successful production of Hugh Walpole’s The Haxtons by the Knowle Park Congregational Church Dramatic Society. Although “…a sincere, steady production of a social drama…it’s very steadiness proved to be one of its chief faults.” Essayist, critic, novelist and playwright, Sir Hugh Walpole, as the above highlights, was also middle class, middle aged and Middle England. Following his death in June 1941, The Western Morning News published a short obituary under the heading Famous Novelist with Cornish Association Dead. So, we can add the charge of provincialism too.

But, I ask, is that such a bad thing? In the October of 1940, The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror reported on a talk given by Sir Hugh in the Bristol Central Library on The Romantic Novel in England. In the talk, which was described as both “comprehensive and amusing”, Sir Hugh outlined its history, from its beginnings in the 18th century, through the achievements of the Victorians, to the determination of H.G.Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy to tell the truth, “the first of the realists,” and its end following the First World War. Absent from the report was that during the lecture Heinkel 111 bombers of Kampfgeschwader 55, led by Oberleutnant Speck von Sternburg, were attempting to bomb the Bristol Aircraft Works at nearby Filton. Despite the air-raid sirens over 700 people stayed to listen as a 57 year old man talked about the English romantic novel while bombers of a crack Luftwaffe squadron tried to drop bombs on them. Were it not an oxymoron, one could say that any intelligent nazi reading about this would have quickly realised that the game was up and any chance of world domination was lost as soon as Sir Hugh, signing a copy of his The Bright Pavilions for the library, added “In the time of bombing October 18, ’40.”

Not, perhaps, a Churchillian moment but it was an example of the bravery that characterised many of the smaller moments of the war.  It was, I suggest, that quiet, unassuming bravery that Middle England does so well, a quality that we who are not from Middle England can only look on from afar and admire. It was also very human, another quality which I have already suggested was important in the life and work of Sir Hugh Walpole. The American writer Joseph Hergesheimer (1880 – 1954) in his book Hugh Walpole, An Appreciation wrote of his work “They, the novels, are at once provincial, as the great novels invariably are, and universal as any deep penetration of humanity, and considerable artistry, must be.” True, it was published by Walpole’s American publisher and true also that Douglas Goldring (1887 – 1960) in his book Reputations, Essays on Criticism likened the reading of a novel by Hugh Walpole as “…putting on one’s high hat and grandpapa’s Sunday trousers and making a call in Rutland Gate!” Having read Mr Perrin and Mr Traill and The Dark Forest I can vouch for the former criticism and pass lightly over the latter, justifying it by noting Goldring’s friendship with Wyndham Lewis and the whole Vorticist nonsense.

Sir Hugh Walpole, we salute you! In your honour we fire a mighty salvo of coordinates (7,3) and (8,3), moving my literary taste back towards the E.M.Forster axis, which is where we want to be.

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1 Comment

  1. Love the anecdote about the talk at Bristol Central Library – how very British!

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