Hugh Walpole (1884-1941)

Next, reviews of Hugh Walpole.

Who reads Walpole now? Very few people, I suspect. There is an excellent 2013 article on the BBC which wonders if a new theatre adaptation of his most famous novel, Rogue Herries, will bring new readers and a revived reputation. I don’t think it has happened!

Walpole was an important literary figure in the 1920s and 1930s: a best-selling author who founded the Book Society in 1927 to ‘promote the advancement of literature’. The Book Society was a kind of club; subscribers would receive the Society’s ‘book-of-the-month’ automatically, and a list of their ‘choices’. This gave them increasing power to promote their version of ‘good books’.

Their marketing claimed:

With the help of the Selection Committee it will be impossible for you to miss any really worth-while book that is published

and by joining the Book Society they are

permanently in touch with all that is finest in modern literature.

Some critics of the time disagreed! In Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) Q D. Leavis wrote,

it chooses novels of such competent journalists as G. B. Stern, A. P. Herbert, Rebecca West, Denis Mackail…, sapless ‘literary’ novels, or the smartly fashionable (Hemingway, Osbert Sitwell). By December 1929 the society had nearly seven thousand members, and it is still growing, from which the quite unbiased observer might fairly deduce two important cultural changes: first, that by conferring authority on a taste for the second-rate (to the Book Society the publication of A Modern Comedy is ‘a real event in the story of modern English literature’) a middlebrow standard of taste has been set up; second that middlebrow taste has thus been organised. (23-24)

Leavis’s opinions and fears for the future are clearly expressed in this passage. The novelists recommended by the Book Society are judged to be merely ‘competent journalists’; or, damning any claim to literary status ‘smartly fashionable’; or, of those novels with a claim to literary status, ‘sapless’. Added to this the Book Society’s praise for the second volume of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, and Leavis can confidently write that the ‘unbiased observer’ will deduce the conferring of ‘authority on a taste for the second-rate’.

Walpole’s novels were similarly regarded as middlebrow and journalistic, yet he seems to have been good friends with many people who may in private have been rude about him. He had a particularly unlikely friendship with Virginia Woolf, who called him ‘dear old voluble Hugh’.

Yet Hugh’s Book Society was powerful, and this power was felt by modernist Virginia Woolf. She wrote to Vita Sackville-West in 1931:

‘Yes much against my will, L. insisted upon sending an advance copy [of The Waves] to the Book Society. But what did Hugh say? Damned it utterly I suppose from your silence on this head. Please tell me. You know how I mind even the workhouse cats view, vain as I am.’  (377)

Walpole was also a good friend of Elizabeth von Arnim. Early in 1907 he wrote her a fan letter which resulted in him going to Pomerania to become tutor to her children (following E. M Forster). Walpole wrote to his friend Charles Marriott:

The Countess is a complete enigma. I don’t see much of her but, when I do, she has three moods. (1) Charming, like her books only more so (this does not appear often). (2) Ragging. Now she is unmerciful – attacks on every side, goes at you until you are reduced to idiocy, and then drops you, limp. (3) Silence. This is most terrible of all. She sits absolutely mute and if one tries to speak one gets snubbed. She was like that at lunch today, and we all made shots in turn and got ‘settled’. You see she is not an easy person to live with, but I’m sure there’s a key somewhere which I hope to find.

She sounds dreadful, but this account shows that Walpole was both a very good writer and an amiable and optimistic person! From this inauspicious start they became enduring friends. In fact, a list of Walpole’s friends is a who’s who of British literary life in the first half of the twentieth century.

Walpole’s reputation took a severe blow with the publication of Somerset Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale in 1930. Maugham had been Walpole’s friend for 20 years, but he based the self-promoting character Alroy Kear upon him.

Walpole, wrote Maugham, personified that body of writers

“who attempt by seizing every opportunity to keep in the public eye, by getting on familiar terms with critics so that their books may be favourably reviewed, by currying favour wherever it can serve them, to attain a success which their merit scarcely deserves. They attempt by their push and pull to make up for their lack of talent.”

(Introduction to Cakes and Ale by Nicholas Shakespeare)


10 thoughts on “Hugh Walpole (1884-1941)

  1. Ah, good old Hugh. Having read his autobiography I was struck at how at ease he was with himself. I don’t think he had any illusions about himself as a person, both good and bad, but he never sought to justify himself. He was at times brave, gossipy, big-headed and very generous. Despite the sniping of the likes of Leavis, he was a happy man and i do feel that’s important.

    • Yes, I get the sense too that he was a very generous man. One of our reviews is of Farthing Hall, the novel he wrote with J. B. Priestley, when Priestley was a young writer.
      I’ll wager that Walpole had a much happier life than Leavis.

  2. Following on from the previous comment I have just come across Hugh Walpole’s generous contribution to a little work entitled “Sheila Kaye-Smith A Biographical Sketch”
    He felt that in her novels,
    “She deals in timeless things, the soil, trees, rivers, corn, food and drink. She has timeless themes, birth, death love, jealousy, patience, maternity, friendship”.
    He continues by suggesting that “because she is old-fashioned” (in 1929) she “is never out of fashion. Her characters are true of any time and all time”.

    While her novels are now out of print it may be true that the themes that he highlighted are timeless but perhaps the manner of their presentation in some of her work has not proved to have the same appeal for a modern readership. Nevertheless I would recommend Tambourine, Trumpet and Drum as worth reading.

  3. Poor Hugh! What vicious comments! I do have a couple of his books on Mount TBR and *will* get to them eventually. I take Leavis’s point about the relentless promotion of what we call middlebrow writing, but there is room for all bookwise – we don’t want to be reading Proust and Woolf *all* the time!

    • I enjoyed my Walpole, ‘The Old Ladies’. He really does write a good, page turning novel. The only novel that my group failed to get on with was in fact the famous historical novel, Rogue Herries.

  4. George, I didn’t know that some chapters of The Old Ladies were published in the Criterion. It just goes to show, as we knew, that the ‘brows’ did not keep to separate publications. And in 1924 V Woolf wrote to Walpole to say that she was reading The Old Ladies ‘with great pleasure’.

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