Harlequin in Whitehall: A Life of Humbert Wolfe 
by Philip Bagguley.
Nyala, 439 pp., £24.50, May 1997, 0 9529376 0 3
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‘An obituary,’ Virginia Woolf wrote on Saturday, 6 January 1940.

Humbert Wolfe. Once I shared a packet of choc creams with him at Eileen Power’s. An admirer sent them. This was a fitting tribute. A theatrical-looking glib man. Told me he was often asked if I were his wife. Volunteered that he was happily married, though his wife lived – Geneva? I forget. Remember thinking, Why protest? what’s worrying you? ... There was a queer histrionic look in him, perhaps strain in him. Very self-assured outwardly. Inwardly lacerated by the taunt that he wrote too easily and deified satire; that’s my salvage from an autobiography of him – one of many, as if he were dissatisfied and must always draw and redraw his own picture ... so the inspirer of these vague winter night memories – he who sends for the last time a faint film across my tired head – lies with those blackberry eyes shut in that sulphurous cavernous face.

Philip Bagguley refers to (without quoting) these words more than once, marvelling at their unkindness. Woolf passes from mild contempt to professional interest in the writer’s hidden wound, then comes a chilling dismissal. She won’t think of him again.

Humbert Wolfe’s declared autobiographies are Now a Stranger (1933) and The Upward Anguish (1938). He was born Berto Wolff, the son of a medium well-off Jewish family in the Bradford wool trade, who lived, he said, ‘in acute terror’ of having to enter the ‘trade’. His father died when he was only nine. His formidable mother, Consola, was from Genoa. She set a mark on Berto which could not be effaced. In 1903 he won a scholarship to Wadham, and went up to Oxford, as Bagguley puts it, ‘under two handicaps in addition to his Jewishness; he was a grammar school boy at an undistinguished college’. He had looked forward to a career in politics or at the Bar, but had to settle for the Civil Service. In 1908 he was appointed to an Upper Division Clerkship in the Harbour Department of the Board of Trade. Two years later he married a Scottish girl, Jessie Graham (their families had met on a seaside holiday at Oban), and they had three children, of whom the first and the youngest, ‘the little lost shadow, the small lost third’, died. The second, Anne, was born with a hare lip and a cleft palate, and had the first of a long series of operations when she was only two weeks old.

By 1914 Humbert had been transferred a step upwards to William Beveridge’s new Labour Exchange Department, the inception of social security in Britain. Rejected (because of his weak lungs) by the Forces, he fought with courage and adroitness in the endless war between government departments, distinguishing himself as a negotiator and reconciliation man. Emerging as Assistant Secretary at the new Ministry of Labour, he was awarded a CBE and appointed to the British delegation at the ILO in Geneva, where he was one of the very few of our representatives to speak French and German. After this he set his sights, but always in vain, on a senior post at the League of Nations or a position as director at the ILO, while Jessie, sometimes with her mother or her sister, lived at a bewildering variety of addresses, consoled by hope.

Humbert’s first book of poems, London Sonnets, was published in 1920, but he didn’t really make a stir until Requiem (1927), although Bagguley is surely wrong in saying that ‘no book of verse since Masefield’s Everlasting Mercy sold so abundantly.’ From his letters it seems that he looked to his poetry, as well as to various literary hack jobs, to help pay the mortgage and the household bills. ‘Money is the first thing of which I think in the morning and the last thing of which I think at night,’ he wrote to Jessie from Geneva in 1921, but things were no easier in 1929, when his salary was an impressive £1200, rising to £1500. There are 28 entries in this biography’s index under ‘financial problems’. He seemed at all stages of his life to cut an unnecessary dash with his attention-stealing wide-brimmed Homburg, bow-tie, flourished cigarette-holder, malacca cane, luncheons at the Ivy and Savoy, and a service flat at Artillery Mansions for himself alone ‘to give me the chance of writing freely’. He wasn’t by any means alone as a bureaucrat half-committed to the arts – in fact, in 1935 he became the first president of the Society of Civil Service Authors – and it was quite possible in the Twenties and Thirties to mingle with poets and spend very little, commuting from an oil-lamp-lit cottage, say, in Sussex. But that wasn’t what Humbert wanted. He saw himself as a flash bohemian, notable in his exits and entrances, witty, even priceless, but reserving the right to be taken seriously. How he appeared to others was of great importance to him. He loved to see and be seen, as when in 1936 he took Charles Laughton to lunch at the Athenaeum. ‘You can imagine,’ he wrote, ‘the gaping of all the old men at his appearance.’ At the literary parties of those days there were many compelling sights and sounds, but none more noticeable than Humbert’s voice. Bagguley charitably says that he kept it artificially sharp and high because his mother was deaf.

To say that he was acting a part is by no means enough. Storm Jameson, who knew him for years, said that his first impulse was self-re-creation. ‘For as long as it amused him he was wholly – almost wholly, leaving aside the part of him reserved, as we say, to God – whoever he happened at any moment to be impersonating, the witty diner-out, the tactful handler of a social crisis or its deliberately unscrupulous provoker, the malicious storyteller, the poet.’ A series of transformations, then, seemingly, like Harlequin’s, magical. After several attempts to explain this, Bagguley concludes that ‘Humbert deflected unwelcome curiosity by pretending to be who he really was.’ This, though sympathetic, won’t do. During the Munich crisis all civil servants above a certain rank were required to tell their office where they could be reached every night, in case of an emergency. Humbert reluctantly produced the names and addresses of six women. Jessie’s was there, but it was the last one.

As a poet, Humbert was often said to be, and perhaps would have liked to be, but wasn’t much, like Heine. Bagguley is concerned to show that he was not a Georgian, which is true if it simply means that Marsh didn’t invite him to contribute to the anthologies, but not in the wider sense of, for instance, James Reeves’s Introduction to Georgian Poetry. He belongs to a vanished age of serious light verse. The 13 of his poems Harold Monro selected for his Chapbook for August 1922 (and which appeared in Humbert’s Kensinaton Gardens two years later) start with the uncompromisingly Georgian ‘Morning’:

If all of us were doomed to die
When we had lived a minute
I think I know what Ann and I
Would wish to happen in it.

We’d let our sixty seconds run
Where chestnut-blossom hardens
Some early morning at Kensington
When Spring is in the gardens.

In ‘Thrushes’ the city financier, top-hatted target of satire, walks ‘stiffly’ through the gardens, ignoring the daisies beneath him and the birds above. ‘Lamb’ defends young creatures, the lamb who ‘replies with a leap’ and the boy who defies the park-keeper, and there are brief poems sympathising with the motionless statues, tramps asleep ‘like litter on the grass’, a de la Mareish old, old lady that nobody knows and a young man who is not quite right in the head.

Though he wrote, with great facility, plays, epitaphs, harlequinades, Humbert Wolfe is most himself in the tiny Georgian lyric which turns so adroitly to satire. He took a risk here, as he had done ever since his Bradford schooldays, of being considered too clever by half. But satire, he believed, was ‘one of the redemptions of the world’, and he shifted the responsibility onto an ambiguous muse.

As always when he has finished writing
he who takes the pencil out of my hand
looks at me with bright, half-wondering malice
and says: ‘Another poem by Humbert Wolfe.
Well, take your poem, and make the most of it.’

One of the most interesting things about this book is its relationship to its writer. Philip Bagguley is 70 and has been a school teacher and university chaplain at Nottingham. As a student in the early Fifties he read Wolfe’s The Uncelestial City (1930), a fantasia on the last thoughts of a judge who has to recall, on the point of death, his own career and in particular two of his cases – the trial of a poet for blasphemy, and of a murderer. The poet is called Jinks and the murderer Jakes and there is an uneasy give and take between what’s funny and what isn’t, and every now and then a doubtful conclusion.

Each one takes
his own burden of action, and his own mistakes
walk with him like tall friends, and in the end
believe me, madam, man has no other friend.

The Uncelestial City was unkindly reviewed, but Bagguley says: ‘This, the first of his books that I read, made a deep impression on me, while leaving me puzzled as to whether the author was a Christian, a pagan, or even some sort of pantheist.’ This sets the book’s gentle, decent, open-minded tone. Bagguley, although he seems not to have much ear and cuts down Wolfe’s verses for quotation in unaccountable ways, examines nearly all the 18 volumes of poetry. As a biographer he is tireless, with a curious habit of telling us things that didn’t happen:

Princess Bibesco, another of Humbert’s admirers, is said to have made him the present of an orange tree about this time. Whether or not she intended it for the Athenaeum garden, that is where it found a home, although the likelihood is that it was a mock orange, and no record of the bequest has survived.

But his life as a teacher and a trainer of teachers has given him an expert’s interest in administration. He is just as absorbed, and makes the reader just as absorbed, as Wolfe was himself, in the effects of the Trade Board Acts, the struggles of the Coal Committee of the ILO, or the delays of the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation in Geneva. Almost reluctantly he tells us, at the same time, the story of Humbert’s neglect of Jessie (although he was known as a kind man) and of his infatuation, at the very end of his life, with Pamela Frankau.

His task, he says in an introductory note, has been to ‘attempt to convey the unique and abiding interest which Wolfe’s life and work hold for me’. Perhaps he hasn’t entirely done this, but he has written a book which is moving in its own right.

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