Who was David Peterley?

Michael Holroyd

David Peterley’s Peterley Harvest was first published on 24 October 1960. The book had a curious history and, shortly before publication, stories began to appear in the press declaring it to be an elaborate hoax.

The jacket of the book contained the information that David Peterley was the only son of an old Quaker family that had ‘lived in the Chilterns and been neighbours of Milton and the Penns’. He had left college in 1924 at the age of 22 and, despite ‘having been trained to no trade or profession’, gone to work in a solicitor’s office. To escape the tedium of this work, and as an alternative to marriage with a woman of his father’s choice, he set out to see the world and, after staying some four years in Australia, returned to England in 1930. From 1926 to 1939, when he went back to Australia, Peterley kept an extensive diary, rewriting the personal passages so as to produce a ‘more or less continuous autobiographical narrative’ which, we are told, the editor Richard Pennington further abbreviated for publication. The first four years of this diary are dissolved into Mr Pennington’s Introduction, and Peterley Harvest, ‘the private diary of David Peterley now for the first time printed’, opened in June 1930 as David Peterley disembarked at Liverpool.

This framing of the book provoked much bewilderment. Readers were not told whether or when David Peterley had died or how his papers came to reach McGill University in Canada. They were told that since 1946 Richard Pennington had been head librarian at McGill University. But by including an anonymous drawing in profile of David Peterley as frontispiece, and a photograph of Mr Pennington on the inside flap of the jacket, the publishers were giving away too many clues. The drawing showed the young man whom Mr Pennington describes in his Introduction as having the ‘slight irregularity of face that women find handsome, especially when matched with blond hair and blue eyes’. The photograph of Mr Pennington revealed a dark-bearded, middle-aged man who was described as having been at different times a publisher, sailor, printer, university lecturer and frequent speaker on Canadian radio and television. Yet were these not likenesses, light and dark, of the same man? If so, it would give point to such jokes as the Peterleys having been near neighbours to the Penns (which when added to Milton almost gives you Pennington), and to the remark made by a friend to Peterley while on a visit to Prague: ‘that it was a pity my name was David, and that if it had been Richard I could have become the second Richard of Prague.’

Confirmation of this single identity appeared to have been provided by the copyright line, which simply read: © Richard Pennington. It seems unthinkable that a sometime publisher and printer would have allowed such a line to appear had he wished to float a forgery – he would have used the more discreet tactics of Madame Solario or Letters of an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman. Peterley Harvest is not in fact a forgery, but one of those ‘fakes’ that present autobiographical material with the foreshortening and ambiguity of an imaginative work – what Wordsworth meant by ‘to throw over incidents and situations from common life a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect’.

The unusual aspect of Peterley Harvest gave its first reviewers an appalling headache. They did not know what to make of it, ‘unless, of course’, hazarded the Sunday Times literary editor, ‘the diary is really the work of Richard Pennington’. Even then, how was one to evaluate such a strange enterprise? Some papers gave it cautious notices (‘has atmosphere’, noted the Guardian) or retaliated with venom: ‘The harvest of David Peterley was sour grapes,’ commented the Times. Others left it alone. It is easy to feel sympathy for those literary editors who at short notice found themselves in this predicament, but their fears of becoming the dupes of a sinister literary plot now seem exaggerated. Philip Toynbee, for example, who declared that he had never really been taken in for a minute, his scepticism having been awakened early on by the frontispiece (you can’t get much earlier in a book than its frontispiece), obviously had been taken in and felt let down. He wrote in the Observer.

While I could still believe that it was dealing, through however many curtains of romantic gauze, with a real life and a real person… I wanted very much indeed to know who he was. But as soon as I had concluded that he was nobody at all I found Peterley Harvest a serious strain on my patience. Did the author foresee such a reaction … how could he imagine that the hoax would work? How could he dare to introduce his figment to men and women of authenticated flesh and blood?

Toynbee was particularly sensitive to the danger of literary victimisation, having been much mocked in the late 1950s for the generous welcome he gave to Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Determined not to be taken in again, he was aggressively on guard against some of his own best instincts. There was, too, a genuine problem of category. Was Peterley Harvest a novel autobiography or an autobiographical novel? And does it matter whether the book is a memoir or fiction or an ingenious amalgam of the two?

Short of the Hitler Diaries, this question has seemed to matter less in the last twenty-five years, partly because there has been considerably more cross-fertilisation between fiction and non-fiction. This process has enriched our recent fiction – most remarkably, perhaps, the novels of Peter Ackroyd, D.M. Thomas, Beryl Bainbridge, Julian Barnes and Thomas Keneally, whose Schindler’s Ark was marketed in America (under a slightly different title) as non-fiction and in Britain as a novel. Writers of light fiction, too, have added to the enrichment of their work by introducing people from history to fictional characters from the books of other novelists – a notable example being the co-operative sleuthing of Sherlock Holmes and Freud in Nicholas Meyer’s adventure The Seven Per Cent Solution.

Many American and British novelists, from Truman Capote to Piers Paul Read, have taken on the non-fiction thriller. But the benefits of fictional devices to serious non-fiction, from the days of André Maurois’s romanticised version of Shelley to Norman Mailer’s pastiche of Marilyn Monroe, have seemed more dubious. With Peterley Harvest there was an additional problem because, unlike recent fictional diaries such as Nazi Lady: The Diaries of Elisabeth von Stahlenberg 1933-1948, or fictional autobiographies such as Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, or Danny Hill: Memoirs of a Prominent Gentleman (edited by Francis King) and Margaret Forster’s ‘edition’ of Thackeray’s Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman, the book mingled respected literary figures still alive in Britain with private characters who, if not invented, were surely concealed like the author himself under pseudonyms. Peterley Harvest therefore seemed suspended between the fictional diary that has a well-established place in English literature and such fraudulent productions as The Whispering Gallery, those anonymous ‘leaves from a Diplomat’s Diary’ whose author had been prosecuted in the late 1920s on a charge of attempting to obtain money under false pretences. The author of that hoax, reputed to be Lord Birkenhead, turned out to be an actor named Hesketh Pearson. In a subsequent book of breezy reflections on the craft of biography called Ventilations, Pearson gave examples of how the non-fiction writer may use his fancy to improve on fact – a perversion of Wordsworth’s prescription, which Pearson renounced for solid Johnsonian principles of biography once he became a professional biographer himself in the 1930s.

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