Extraordinary People

Anthony Powell

  • The Lyttelton – Hart-Davis Letters edited by Rupert Hart-Davis
    Murray, 185 pp, £12.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 7195 3770 3

When housekeeping was still difficult after the second war we used to lunch quite often at the Chester Arms, which stood nearly opposite where we lived in Regent’s Park. The pub was run by a delightful family, a handsome widow and her two pretty daughters. We once took an American to luncheon there. Could he have been an American officer? I can’t remember. When I remarked that it was lucky to find such nice people in the local, he replied: ‘I’ve often heard that said over here. I don’t understand it. In the US we go where it suits, and don’t bother about the people.’ Possibly because the staff was prepossessing, but also because the place was comparatively remote from more frequented scenes, an occasional acquaintance would choose the Chester for lunching someone not his wife. One would look the other way, or give a myopic nod before returning to rationing or bomb damage. Among those who appeared there from time to time with a guest evidently not his wife was Rupert Hart-Davis. He was unique among those couples, with their faintly clandestine air, in boldly underlining his presence within the pub by parking outside the entrance a publisher’s van on the side of which was inscribed in large letters: RUPERT HART-DAVIS.

In those days I hardly knew him; certainly did not know him enough to have the faintest sense of unease at inadvertently happening on a friend’s equivocal situation – if it were an equivocal situation – far less did I have any notion of the story behind these Hart-Davis luncheons à deux. I can’t remember when Hart-Davis and I first met. Not at Eton, where, two years younger than myself, he was latterly absent for long periods owing to ill health. I did not even know him by sight. He went up to Balliol the term after I came down (and remained from choice only two terms in residence). I never saw him perform as an actor, earliest of his incarnations, but we may have run across each other in pre-war days, when (as he records in Who’s Who) he was working as office-boy, like myself, in a publishing firm.

In the war he had been with the Coldstream (adjutant to a Guards battalion can have been no rest-cure, though pleasant for others to have someone so understanding in that unavoidably brusque role); when demobilised founding the small lively publishing house advertised on the side of the van. By the time his biography of Hugh Walpole appeared in 1951 I seem to have known Hart-Davis scarcely less than I do now; and, in some senses, I perhaps know him scarcely any more today. I say that on account of the large tracts of his life that his own books continue to reveal.

To bury one’s friends is notoriously an easier undertaking than to praise them: the latter, anyway in print, a delicate, even potentially embarrassing business. Nonetheless I will risk asserting that the virtues of Hugh Walpole as a book seem peculiarly to exemplify Hart-Davis’s very individual mixture of tact, humour, instinct for dealing with tricky subjects in a no-nonsense style – a style apparently simple to the point of heartiness, while concealing a good deal of undercover subtlety.

Hart-Davis liked Walpole as a man, even found his works ‘easy reading’, but had few illusions as to Walpole’s standing as a writer; at a period when plain speaking was less allowable than today, he dealt openly with the exacting brand of homosexuality which drew Walpole towards middle-aged married men. Sympathy on the biographer’s part was never confused with commendation of books by Walpole that did not deserve to be commended.

Hart-Davis’s office was in Soho Square. Someone said it had the atmosphere of a schooner, the master bawling down the hatch-way: ‘Below there ...’ That veteran courtier Tommy Lascelles was probably nearer the mark in once observing almost to himself: ‘Rupert’s more like a Life Guards officer than a publisher.’ The firm, if not run single-handed, was not far from that, and, if Hart-Davis himself did not normally undertake the packaging of the books, I should by no means be prepared to guarantee that he never formed the packing department in moments of crisis, which must have been fairly frequent.

In addition to seeing authors, reading MSS, sitting on bibliographical committees, acting as secretary (anyway moving spirit) to more than one dining-club, Hart-Davis was occupied in editing such works as the collected letters of George Moore, Max Beerbohm – above all, Oscar Wilde – and later, now for many years past, in correcting the proofs of my own books with precision and severity.

The Letters of Oscar Wilde (1962) constitutes an achievement altogether unusual in its field of editorship. Hart-Davis admits to a passion for fossicking out information to provide the exhaustive notes which make the Wilde Letters an unmatched repository of biographical material about the people Wilde came across, or who were connected with him. Here is a kind of encyclopedia of the Nineties which is always worth consulting.

Hart-Davis’s own personality, powerful, buoyant, at the same time screened rather than revealed in public appearances, is lighted up more clearly by The Lyttelton-Hart-Davis Letters, three volumes of which at present cover the years 1955-1958, a fourth volume being promised. Even more about him is disclosed in The Arms of Time (1979), of which a word in a moment. The Lyttelton-Hart-Davis Letters had their origins towards the close of a dinner at the Johnson Club, attended as Hart-Davis’s guest by George Lyttelton (1883-1962), a retired Eton housemaster. Lyttelton, by then 72 and living in Suffolk, complained that no one wrote discursive letters any longer: an obsolete expression of friendship which must have cheered the boredom and loneliness of later years. Accordingly, Hart-Davis (b. 1907), then aged 48, characteristically promised that henceforward he would write Lyttelton a letter once a week.

As a boy, George Lyttelton was rather a notable athlete, who had returned to Eton as an assistant-master. Hart-Davis was up to him for ‘English Extra Studies’, and they had remained friends. Lyttelton’s reputation for teaching English in an inspiring manner is in some degree supported by the subsequent careers of pupils, who included Aldous Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane, George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Peter Fleming, John Bayley – a literary macédoine to which several other ingredients could be added. As it fell out, I had myself no dealings with Lyttelton at school, knowing him only by sight. He had the air of being young for his age, a tall, apparently genial beak, well looked on by the boys. We met only in his last few years at a dining-club mentioned in the Letters, when at table he was always a most agreeable neighbour.

A story told me years ago by Sacheverell Sitwell comes to mind. Sachie Sitwell said that when he was at Eton a boy had thrown a lighted firework (something Jocelyn Brooke might have enjoyed) into the aisle during a service in chapel. The Lower Master, whose name was F.H. Rawlins, (runner-up for the headmastership when Lyttelton’s Uncle Edward was appointed in 1905), rose at once from his stall. Above the echoing crepitations and showers of sparks exploding between the rows of boys, facing each other from their respectively decani and cantoris knifeboards, he pronounced anathema: ‘The boy who has done this thing has disgraced himself as an Etonian, as a gentleman, as a Christian, and as a man.’ He went on to foretell the disastrous future which could only fall to the lot of the instigator of so sacrilegious an act. I do not know whether the delinquent was incriminated by the school authorities at the time, but these calamitous predictions were in some degree fulfilled, because when the firework-thrower grew up he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment for sending fraudulent betting telegrams. That, however, is by the way. I quote the anecdote for Sachie Sitwell’s comment: ‘The Lower Master’s descending order of values was so good.’

More than one reviewer of earlier volumes of The Lyttelton-Hart-Davis Letters has complained that a very similar scale is adhered to by the two correspondents. That is, I think, not altogether just. The letters were written without thought of publication, and since Lyttelton’s life had been spent at Eton, it is not surprising that many of his references to individuals and happenings are connected with the school. If a few of these may seem cabbalistic, Lyttelton must also be credited with the absorbing scrap of local, though not collegiate, lore that ‘the hero of The Ballad of Reading Gaol had cut the throat of the Eton postmistress who had jilted him.’

The mutually accepted standards of the letter-writers must be admitted to be gentlemanly: even gentlemanly before being Christian. For although Lyttelton seems to have attended church regularly, he admits (when pressed by Hart-Davis) that he does so more in support of an ancient and excellent tradition rather than from any deep religious conviction. So far, in fact, the Lower Master’s scale might be said to have been maintained: on the other hand, behaviour as a man, last on his list, certainly comes first in the Letters.

In this letter-writing convenant, Hart-Davis had the advantage of being younger and of possessing unremitting energy, but time for him was in very short supply. Lyttelton, on the other hand, was occupied with nothing more onerous than a few local duties, gardening and the annual chore (presumably to bring in a pittance) of marking Eng. Lit. papers for the GEC examination. His comments upon this last are often very funny.

Although overwhelmed with work, Hart-Davis says that he welcomes the correspondence in the aspect that he was thereby forced to keep a rough-and-ready diary of weekly events. This is borne out by the Letters, which present an anthropological study of what a publisher’s day could be, as well as expressing the literary likes and dislikes of two reasonably well-read men of different generations. There is rather too much cricket for my own taste, but Alan Ross – perhaps the only writer on cricket I can assimilate – is extolled early on as ‘the first poet’ to report an MCC tour in Australia.

Hart-Davis, professionally involved, has naturally a special point of view, and a wider tolerance (seasoned with a few healthily strong prejudices), though Lyttelton’s middle-browdom in modern writing is tempered by a fear of being left too far behind. This sometimes causes Hart-Davis to laugh at what he regards as wasted attempts to ingest material of no value whatever. Both like Kipling, Conrad, the Sherlock Holmes stories, P.G. Wodehouse, George Moore in selected books, while (notwithstanding the fact that these were Lyttelton’s old pupils) both look on Orwell as overrated, and neither has much enthusiasm for Connolly.

Lyttelton is unexpectedly lukewarm about Shakespeare, except the poetry, though, to be fair, he had to mark GEC papers on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice, in the second of which Hart-Davis had once carried a halberd and therefore had to agree with some of Lyttelton’s strictures. Lyttelton’s devotion to Samuel Johnson is not surprising; more so in one of his generation is his strong support of Byron’s Don Juan. He likes Hardy – ‘Numb as a vane that cankers on its point/True to the wind that kissed ere canker came’ – and Housman: ‘Once in the wind of morning’ (though he is a bit uncomfortable about the homosexuality). He is anti-Yeats but pro-Somerville – Ross.

Hart-Davis presses the claims of Landor, quoting a verse about a girl who wouldn’t bother with the poet:

I have since written what no tide
  Shall ever wash away, what men
Unborn shall read o’er ocean wide
  And find Ianthe’s name again.

He does not get much reaction about Landor from Lyttelton; nor really about Ibsen either, though Lyttelton is prepared to like Henry James (more when older than as a young man), and wholly accepts the poetry of Hart-Davis’s personal friend, Edmund Blunden. Hart-Davis thinks Maugham ‘the most over-praised GOM since Bridges’, but, while not denying Lyttelton’s suspicion that Maugham was not a very nice man, recalls that Maugham was always very friendly to him. Lyttelton is unduly disturbed by what he says the French were calling les jeunes gens furieux. Many other writers, past and present, are mentioned: the above suggests the line-up.

A more striking side of the Letters is, however, the ‘plot’ which develops on Hart-Davis’s side. At their very beginning, the reader’s attention is caught by a mysterious reference to a cottage in Yorkshire to which – so Hart-Davis tells Lyttelton – he retires from time to time to work undisturbed at his editing, while at the same time taking some sort of holiday, the kind of working holiday he likes best, among the Yorkshire Dales. He hints that there is something more than this – a secret that will one day be revealed.

One cannot help wondering how far Lyttelton’s curiosity was aroused. He came of a generation, and profession, rigorously schooled in not probing too closely into the personal lives of friends and acquaintances: a 19th-century doctrine which was perhaps not always put into practice, but to which, anyway in theory, respect was paid. There is possibly more to be said for this social attitude than might at first sight appear. The taste for holding every action up to the light for examination (one of the many by-products of the contemporary preoccupation with equality, emotional equality becoming also a requirement) may not necessarily ameliorate life. That is en passant. The question is whether Lyttelton ever allowed his mind to dwell on the possibility that something more than the beauty and peace of the Dales added charm to his friend’s periodic retirements there.

A valid criticism of the Letters might be that Lyttelton’s personality, although growing clearer, especially his melancholy, as he gets into his stride as a letter-writer, is never, as Hart-Davis’s is, rounded off into what amounts to a lightly-drawn self-portrait. The portrait of Hart-Davis gives design to the collection, and almost makes the Letters into a story (though a very different one from the work in question) in the manner of such novels in letters as Les Liaisons Dangereuses. One appreciates that on Lyttelton’s side no remotely comparable disclosure is likely to have been available, but, after all, on his own showing, some of the Lyttelton family seem to have been fairly eccentric, while as the father of Humphrey Lyttelton, the band leader, he was, if only at second hand, in touch with the exotic world of Jazz. He is amusing, cultivated, his disapprovals are usually understandable: but perhaps of necessity in a schoolmaster, there is something a little too good to be true.

Hart-Davis, at what he judges to be the right moment, discloses his secret. He does this in the third volume of the Letters, speaking about the matter in a typical blend of candour and lack of fuss, but not without all regard for dramatic timing. If Lyttelton did think the Hart-Davis pattern of living startling, he showed the qualities of the 19th-century viewpoint invoked above by concealing the smallest suggestion of surprise.

In his acting days, Hart-Davis had been very briefly married to a fellow mime (to use Max Beerbohm’s term), and they had quickly parted, though remaining friends. After a while he had married an American (whose mother’s second marriage was British), become father of a family, gone into the Army when the second war came. After the war, so Hart-Davis tells Lyttelton, his second wife indicated that not only did she prefer to bear no more children, but wished to bring physical relations between herself and her husband to an end. This was not combined with any immediate desire in other respects to break up their household – at least until the children had grown up.

Hart-Davis explains to Lyttelton that he had by temperament no taste for casual affairs. (This is a subject upon which it might have been interesting to hear Lyttelton express his own opinions, even if from observation rather than experience.) Hart-Davis goes on to relate how, not long after this disjunction, he fell in love. His feelings were returned. He told his wife, who accepted the contingency, a place was found in the office for this new love, which was why we used to see the two of them often lunching together at the Chester Arms.

In short – to speak with his own plain language – for many years Hart-Davis had two wives: one at home in their house in Oxfordshire; the other in Soho Square and the Yorkshire cottage. The really remarkable thing is that he seems to have run this conjugal tandem in a manner acceptable to both other parties concerned: something that not every man could have brought off.

To continue the story here beyond the extent of the Letters, Hart-Davis parted from his second wife when the children were grown up. He then retired to an Old Rectory in the Dales, the country long associated with that other side of his life. Unhappily, there were only a few years to be enjoyed before the sudden and tragic death of Ruth Hart-Davis, as she had by then become.

If George Lyttelton had lived on into his nineties (perhaps made the century which must have been his as a cricketer), he would not only have seen his old friend for some years happily married again for the fourth time but would once more have been required to show sang froid – it is hard to think he would not have needed that inwardly – on reading The Arms of Time (1979), Hart-Davis’s memoir of his mother.

In my experience, it is rare to find exceptional people without exceptional antecedents of one kind or another. Even if the unusual nature of those antecedents may not be immediately obvious on the surface of things, they are apt to become plain on close investigation. I certainly do not affirm that no extraordinary individual is ever thrown up by unquestionably humdrum forbears, but almost always contributory influences are to be traced, the more obscure echelons of life often producing every bit as strange an ancestry as the more showy ones.

Even on the face of things, the origins of Rupert Hart-Davis, as described in The Arms of Time, are singular enough, and with plenty of surrounding idiosyncrasy. His mother was born Sybil Cooper, sister of Alfred Duff Cooper (created first Viscount Norwich), so that Lady Diana Cooper was to become his aunt, he Lady Diana’s publisher. On the maternal side, Sybil Cooper was descended directly from King William IV through his mistress Mrs Jordan, in her day a celebrated actress. It is not, I think, altogether illusory to see, in this infusion of blood, cause for Hart-Davis’s own inclination towards the stage and traces of the Sailor King’s Hanoverian bluffness of approach.

The next two or three generations of Jordan left-handed royal descendants, fairly numerous, tended to make aristocratic marriages and behave on the whole somewhat waywardly. For instance, Hart-Davis’s maternal grandmother (née Lady Agnes Duff), ostracised by her family for running away from her husband, having married her lover, found herself in financial straits when he almost immediately died. Lady Agnes, trying to earn a living as a hospital nurse, was seen – allegedly scrubbing the ward floor – by the subsequently well-known surgeon (Sir) Alfred Cooper. Thus their marriage came about, Sybil Cooper being one of the daughters.

Sibbie Cooper turned out a beauty. At the age of 17, staying in a Hampshire house-party, she was seduced by a fellow guest, Richard Hart-Davis. He was a stockbroker with a good deal of talent as a musician, but no interest whatever in writing and painting, to which Sibbie Cooper was devoted, though wholly unmusical. They were married, and settled down to an unhappy life together, though never divorced.

Before she died at the age of 40, Sibbie Hart-Davis took a long succession of lovers. In the memoir of his mother, her son states that he is fairly sure that Richard Hart-Davis was not his father. Attendant circumstance and a shared physical appearance suggest that the true paternal relationship belonged to a Yorkshire landowner (possibly accounting for Rupert Hart-Davis’s lifelong response to Yorkshire) named Gervase Becket, a banker and MP.

Sibbie Hart-Davis was part of that sparkling, gifted, ultimately rather tragic group of young people, many of whom did not survive the first war. They represented a blend of semi-smart, semi-bohemian life, a social organism never quite the same before or since: an atmosphere associated with the Twenties, but, like the arts of the century’s first two or three decades, taking most characteristic form in the years leading up to 1914.

At one end of the scale were ducal castles: at the other, the studios of Chelsea and Fitzroy Street. Hart-Davis may not be alone as a child drawn by Augustus John, but few small boys could claim that Wyndham Lewis preserved cigarette-cards for them. Incidentally, it is a remarkable coincidence that both Hart-Davis’s mother and his second mother-in-law (an American) had affairs with Lewis.

Sibbie Hart-Davis adored her son. Throughout the whole of his schooldays they wrote to each other every day. We have his word for that in The Arms of Time. A stifling connection with his mother, an uncomfortable paternity, parents at odds with each other, poorish health: the silver spoon was not altogether missing, certainly, but that, too, might have been a positive disadvantage in a home life that was always irregular, sometimes fairly rackety. Yet this is a man who became adjutant of a Guards battalion; founded a vigorous publishing firm; wrote an accomplished biography; is perhaps our foremost editor of writers’ letters. ‘Put that in your pipe and smoke it!’ there is a temptation to yell at any passing psychoanalyst.

The psychoanalyst’s undoubted dexterity in playing case-histories both ways might lead to the reply: ‘What else do you expect? Hart-Davis was anyway seeking a father-figure in Lyttelton.’ But the latter image dissolves as soon as flashed across the screen, Hart-Davis appearing in the Letters as father-figure to Lyttelton rather than vice versa. In short, had Rupert Hart-Davis made a mess of his life, oceans of self-pity would have been available for a hard-luck story on the doctrine that nothing is ever anyone’s own fault. This time that theory seems to have been turned upside-down.