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.

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