Bouvard and Pécuchet

C.H. Sisson

  • The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters: Correspondence of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis. edited by Rupert Hart-Davis
    Murray, 193 pp, £13.50, April 1984, ISBN 0 7195 4108 5

We now have the sixth and final volume of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters. George Lyttelton died on 1 May 1962, thus ending a correspondence which had begun in 1955; the first of the volumes edited by the survivor was published in 1978, the rest have appeared at intervals since. ‘For beginners’, as Rupert Hart-Davis puts it, mindful of those who have had to pick up the thread at some intermediate stage of the correspondence, the editor ‘had been taught by George at Eton, where he was an outstanding teacher and house-master’. This was in 1926. The origin of the correspondence ‘was a dinner party in 1955 during which George’ – by this time retired and living in Suffolk – ‘complained that no one wrote to him’ and Hart-Davis ‘accepted his challenge’. Thereafter the letters were regular – or unrelenting. When they started Lyttelton was 71 and Hart-Davis 48.

The entry into this death-grip was an extraordinarily cold-blooded affair – or if that gives a misleading impression of what was surely a generous gesture on the part of an extremely busy publisher with far too much reading and writing on his hands already, it was certainly a remarkably deliberate one. In the normal way letters are written – unless one happens to be Lord Chesterfield – because they have to be or because more or less involuntary occasion calls them forth. But these two were almost morbidly aware of what they were letting themselves in for. Hart-Davis’s first letter, on 23 October 1955, begins (with a characteristic cricketing metaphor): ‘This is not so much the first over, as a gentle limbering up, a few balls off the wicket to see whether the arm will still go over.’ It is written, like most of those that follow, on a Sunday from the farmhouse near Henley-on-Thames where the publisher retreats at weekends from Soho Square to be with his family and occasionally to mow the lawn, but above all to continue working where he is not – or is little – called out to lunch or dine and where, presumably, the telephone is less infested by publishing business. Lyttelton replies on 27 October, beginning with more cricketing talk and some judicious flattery or appreciation: ‘ “A few balls off the wicket” indeed! What will you be writing when you get your length? It reminds me’ etc. They are off, each thinking about what he will write and what he will receive as well as what he puts down or receives at the moment. ‘You are the diary I have never kept,’ Hart-Davis writes on 6 November 1955, ‘the excuse I have so long wanted for forming words on paper unconnected with duty or business.’ For the septuagenarian the correspondence is simply the high point of the week. These beginnings are important, even for the reader who comes in at a later volume, because they set the tone. Lyttleton even evokes the names of other letter-writers already enshrined in volume form – Carlyle, whom Lytton Strachey said was ‘too long’, and Swift, whom the same authority qualified, with characteristic wrong-headedness one may think, or indeed impertinence, as ‘too dry’. These two are going to be amusing. It is hard to avoid the impression that they are not so much writing letters as writing a book, and once this thought has crossed one’s mind one cannot help admiring the editor’s astuteness in calling his volumes The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters as if this were indeed some well-known collection from the hands of historically important personages or of authors whose importance had long been established by other writings. For all I know, its existence may have been rumoured – in old Etonian circles, one would imagine – in order to create a market, long before the first volume appeared. Be that as it may, the letters are not an accidental growth, like those of Madame de Sevigné, Madame du Deffand, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, Edward FitzGerald or indeed the great Swift himself. They bear the same relationship to such products as do those modern diaries like Crossman’s, written with malice aforethought and for publication, to the diaries of Pepys who did not mean to be read.

This is not to say that the Lyttelton Hart-Davis correspondence has not been found to be immensely readable. In his introduction to the sixth volume the editor explains that when the first of the volumes was ready for the press in 1978 he ‘had no great hope that further instalments would be called for,’ but ‘the dogged, some would say reckless, courage’ of his publisher ‘has been rewarded with esteem, if not with much ready money’ and ‘hundreds of satisfied readers’ have written to the editor ‘from all over the world’. So the market was ready, which is not always the case with masterpieces, and indeed the two correspondents are what might be called representative men whose complacencies were sure to meet with an appropriate response from others similarly trained and experienced. Each has recognised distinction in his field. Lyttelton, ‘the second son of the fifth Lord Lyttelton’, had had a ‘strikingly successful’ Eton career: he ‘reached Sixth Form, played twice against Harrow at Lord’s, was Keeper of the Field and of the Oppidan Wall, and President of Pop. At Trinity, Cambridge, he gained a modest third in the Classical Tripos, and in 1908 he returned as a master to Eton, where his uncle Edward Lyttelton was Head Master.’ He retired from there in 1945, not the least useful of his achievements, in the present context, having been to prepare generations of future readers for his posthumous letters. The distinction of Rupert Hart-Davis is a matter of public knowledge. The founder and chairman of the publishing firm famous for its well-produced and well-edited books but long since gobbled up, as is the modern way with individual and enterprising houses, he has also given wider public services in a number of directions, not least to the London Library. A nephew of Duff Cooper, Lord Norwich, and provided with a variety of connections by Balliol and the Old Vic, where he was a student in 1927-8, as well as by family and school, he is also clearly a man of great individual talents, and one can believe the report in these letters that the answer to the question ‘ “Does R. ever refuse to do something he is asked to do” is, alas, NEVER.’ He seems to have become the sort of person whom everyone consulted about anything in the wide field in which he has interested himself. We even find him advising T.S. Eliot to refuse ‘that ridiculous award’, the Companion of Literature, offered by that ‘miserable institution’ the Royal Society of Literature. He was a member of the General Advisory Council of the BBC as well as a spirit it would surely be right to call ‘moving’ in the Johnson Society and in the Literary Society – ‘a dining club founded in 1807 by Wordsworth and others’. He dines with princesses and is indeed everywhere that is anywhere. His dazzled former schoolmaster, evidently with little knowledge of bureaucratic procedures, foresees in 1960 that his name must appear somewhere in the next one or two Honours Lists, after the success of the London Library appeal. This ‘delightful fantasy’, as Hart-Davis calls it, had to await 1967 to be realised.

It is a curious world that this correspondence reveals – curious, that is, to those outside it, but like most worlds normality itself to those on the inside. Naturally Lyttelton, in a retirement in which the main public events are examiners’ meetings and the meetings of various local committees, cannot compete with his correspondent in newsmongering and has to make up with dollops of – to tell the truth – not always very exhilarating opinion. Hart-Davis introduces him to the Literary Society and that is something gained. He has his moments of triumph, however. There is the ‘slightly comic Governors’ meeting of Wood-bridge School’ at which the tercentenary celebrations are discussed. ‘What big noise shall we try to get?’ Various names are put forward. Lord Nugent? ‘My first pupil,’ Lyttelton says. The Lord Chamberlain, Eric Penn? ‘He was in my house.’ Sir Edward Ford? ‘He is my cousin.’ Sir Michael Adeane! ‘He is my wife’s cousin.’ The Queen Mother? ‘She was a great friend, before marriage, of my wife’s.’ For Hart-Davis, naturally, it is more a question of active connections, with authors, other publishers, people of one sort and another connected with his work. ‘On Wednesday I dined late with Rosamond Lehmann and took her on to a party given for Diana Cooper in the palatial house of Edward Hulton.’ The Duff Cooper establishment at Chantilly is there, but we also find Hart-Davis good-naturedly if reluctantly storing seven thousand books for Edmund Blunden and having him around in his flat when other calls on his time are endless. These are durable men.

Hart-Davis’s energy and industry are phenomenal. As a publisher, he is a man who notices what is in the books he publishes. ‘I hate to publish sloppy writing if it can be improved,’ he says, brooding on a TS of Peter Fleming’s. His editor’s fingers itch, a symptom both creditable and, in certain circumstances, dangerous. His own laborious edition of Oscar Wilde’s letters reaches its final or perhaps one should say penultimate stage in Volume VI; the references to that author throughout the correspondence – for the work took years – are innumerable, and, hardened indexer though he is, he settles at the end of this last lot of letters for ‘Wilde, Oscar, passim’. The material is with him everywhere. In his retreat in Yorkshire where he regularly escapes with Ruth, who later became the third Mrs Hart-Davis, we find him busy as elsewhere with it. From his Henley establishment he writes: ‘I put in twelve hours at my index today – 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. – and covered forty pages.’ So much for his quiet weekends at home. He might obviously, had he stayed the course at Oxford, have been a don, so far as aptitude for such labour goes, though he would probably have been restive in the social bounds of a collegiate existence. He might have been a civil servant, had things turned out that way, and he would certainly have found that even more restrictive and less tolerable. ‘One night,’ he reports in 1960, ‘I dined with Veronica Wedgwood, where I met Sir Somebody Something, one of the joint heads of the Treasury ... He might have appeared, without make-up, as “Self-Love” or “Complacency” in a morality play like Everyman, though his performance might have been thought a little exaggerated.’ If he was a publisher with a passion for masterly editorial work and a high degree of social eligibility, that did not let him off the more sordid tasks of the business. ‘Yesterday, with the temperature at 85, we had our half-yearly sales conference: 13 people present for two and a half hours, and I talked almost the whole time – I hope with more conviction than I felt.’ There were moments when he felt that his Wilde index was ‘a job for a team of subsidised young experts, not for an aging publisher in his nonexistent spare time’.

At the end of the correspondence there is Lyttelton, gobbling up his free copies of a miscellany of Hart-Davis publications and refreshing himself at intervals with Thomas Carlyle. If both read immensely, Hart-Davis as the younger man was the authority on modern literature. ‘Do you put Howard Spring high?’ asks Lyttelton. ‘Tell me about T.E. Hulme, who, they all say, is very important, and I recall nothing he ever wrote.’ The reply comes back: ‘T.E. Hulme wrote practically nothing, and I think you can safely pass him by’ – the best advice, perhaps, to send to that particular corner of Suffolk. Ezra Pound? ‘He is (or rather was),’ Hart-Davis pronounces, ‘one of those people whose influence is infinitely greater and more important than their writings ... his own works seem to me largely wind and rubbish.’ There are moments when one seems to be present at a conversation between Bouvard and Pécuchet. It is less the world of literature that they are conversant with than the great middlebrow book manufactory of their contemporaries and immediate seniors, the good biography and the ‘good story’. One might almost say that the correspondence is the last flower of that world, before television got its grip on the middle classes and when there was still felt to be something socially superior about good books or, at worst, that a certain social background comported a certain superiority in literary judgment.

It is not only in the matter of literary judgments that this pair of correspondents seem a little ingenuous. There is a very odd social tone, which could hardly belong to any other phase in the change of manners which has characterised the 20th century, in the confidences exchanged about Hart-Davis’s relations with Ruth, ‘Not my secretary, but my assistant, right hand and great joy these 12 years past. You shall see and hear more of her in due time.’ ‘I should love to hear all about the lady Ruth,’ the old gentleman replies with burning curiosity, adding the uncertain encouragement that ‘no ex-housemaster, unless he is a fool, is bad at preserving secrets.’ This is half-way through the correspondence. It brings the reply: ‘I shall briefly tell you about my darling Ruth.’ There follow particulars of her maiden name, the fact that her father ‘captained the county in the Minor Counties championship’; then there is something about Comfort’s (Mrs Hart-Davis’s) distaste for intercourse, once she had produced a family. Excited rather unpleasantly by these confidences, the old man becomes lyrical. ‘It is, you know, something like an idyll – like the Book of Ruth! ... Nothing was ever truer than Amor vincit omnia’ – and he adds a bit about Chaucer’s Prioress, for good value. ‘Shocked!!’ he says (sic, with two exclamation-marks). No, he is shocked only by what strikes him forcibly ‘as vulgar or mean and cruel, none of which elements remotely enter the love-story of Rupert and Ruth’. A touch of vulgarity about the comment perhaps?

In the introduction to the second volume, the editor says that he has ‘silently removed from both sides of the corespondence’, among other matters, ‘a good deal of the mutual admiration which some readers’ of the first volume had ‘found cloying; almost all George’s gratitude for the books I continued to send him ... Eton and cricket have also been pruned a little.’ All these features are, however, rather noticeably present throughout the rest of the five volumes and Eton, hardly surprisingly, is never very far away, whether it appears in reminiscence, in sons’ achievements there, or because one or other of the characters who appear in the correspondence went there. The index contains a great variety of names – Agate, Beerbohm, Birley, Ivor Brown, Peter Quennell, T.S. Eliot, Peggy Ashcroft (Hart-Davis’s first wife), Betjeman – the list of the well-known is endless. One way and another the correspondence is a period piece of some significance. What it is not is one of those collections of letters to which readers will return again and again for the sake of the flashes of reality it affords. Neither correspondent is near enough to the nakedness of things for that.