Is it a crime?

P.N. Furbank

  • Peterley Harvest: The Private Diary of David Peterley edited by Michael Holroyd
    Secker, 286 pp, £8.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 436 36715 7

As is well known, there is a curious association between bibliography and crime. It has something to do with a relationship to books as physical objects, and something to do with the fact that bibliographic crime is not felt to be crime quite in the pound-note-forging, or even Vermeer-forging, sense. Some gentlemanly code of ethics enfolds the activities of Thomas Wise and his fellows. As for purely literary, as opposed to bibliographical forgery, it receives no censure at all. Indeed, it receives rather high esteem. James Crossley, the distinguished 19th-century antiquarian and bibliographer, plumed himself on having foisted a ‘Fragment on Mummies’ of his own composing onto Wilkin’s edition of Sir Thomas Browne, and this was considered an excellent jape. Had it been a painting, someone would have called the police.

The question then arises: does crime enter into the phenomenon of Peterley Harvest, a novel composed by the librarian and bibliographer Richard Pennington and offered to the world by him and his first publisher – in what spirit it is for us to examine – as the genuine diary, covering the years 1930 to 1939, of a certain David Peterley, scion of an ancient landed family. Peterley’s diary and other papers, so ran the Foreword by its ‘editor’ Richard Pennington, occupy a large red box in the McGill University Library, of which Pennington was the chief librarian, and the diary itself had been drastically abbreviated by Pennington and supplied with explanatory linking passages. When the work was first published by Hutchinson in 1960, rumour spread that it was a hoax, causing reviewers to treat it in a gingerly and somewhat hostile fashion; and then, very shortly afterwards, the book was withdrawn for undisclosed reasons, and copies were destroyed. Now it has been reissued by Secker and Warburg, as part of the Arts Council Reprint Library, with (as readers of the London Review of Books will know) an Introduction by Michael Holroyd, which identifies ‘David Peterley’ as an artistic fiction and argues a persuasive case for the book’s worth and raison d’être.

Let me dwell a moment or two on the ‘crime’ aspect. Publishers like to exploit the weakness for mystery of us gullible readers, and that is no crime. Nor was it a crime, but rather an act of virtue, on Michael Holroyd’s part to rescue what he considers a misunderstood and underestimated work of art. As for Richard Pennington: did crime, the faint odour or breath of crime, stir his imagination? One asks, not in a Scotland Yard spirit, but fumbling for some explanation, not quite provided by the work itself, as to what it was all for. Maybe Pennington wanted the experience of criminality, without committing an indictable offence.

Is there illumination of his motives in his other writings? He wrote verse, some of which is quoted in Peterley Harvest. He also, in 1931, so my research reveals, contributed a piece about collecting coal-hole covers (‘Another Fine Art Collection’) to Punch. Then, four years later, the London Mercury published an article of his on Thomas Russell the 18th-century sonneteer – a somewhat obscure poet who nevertheless wrote four lines so good that Wordsworth appropriated them for a sonnet of his own (‘How sad a welcome!’). Pennington considered that work of such ‘compact excellence’ deserved universal fame, though a satisfactory second-best would be the esteem of ‘the few lovers of good verse’. It seems that Pennington also collaborated on a Life of Anthony Eden, first published in 1938: however, the British Library strangely did not acquire a copy (nothing fishy here, I hope?). Coal-holes, obscurity: I can’t seem to find much clue to his psyche here, beyond a familiarity with the shadows.

Let us forget crime, then. It remains true that no one has been quite straight with us, neither Pennington, nor his old and his new publishers, nor even Holroyd. The publication date of Peterley Harvest was 1 April, so I intend to regard them as teasing. Tease the first: we do not learn whether Pennington is still alive (and Canada House could not inform me), yet presumably both Hutchinson’s and Secker’s know, and we would have liked to be told. Tease, or ‘economy of truth’, the second: Hutchinson’s, and therefore one assumes Secker’s also, must know why the book was originally withdrawn, and this again is something the reader might wish to know. Tease the third: if Pennington ever meant to deceive his readers, he decisively broke his cover in 1970, a fact surely of some importance? He did so by publishing some Recollections of the Australian poet Christopher Brennan. In these we learn that Pennington was known to his Australian friends as ‘David’, was (like ‘David Peterley’) an associate of a certain George Billam in founding the Turret Repertory Theatre in Sydney, and (like ‘David Peterley’ again) helped set up a financial rescue-organisation for Brennan, who was down on his luck and would sometimes be found lying drunk in the gutter. A letter from Brennan about poetic metre, alluded to in ‘David Peterley’s’ diary for June 1930, is printed in the Recollections as addressed to Pennington. Finally, several Australian woman-friends, who figure in Peterley’s love-life, turn up, with no particular effort at disguise, in the Recollections. A check on many of these facts is to be found in Axel Clark’s biography of Brennan, as is a photo of a rather nice-looking Pennington in knee-length shorts.

It is time to turn to Peterley Harvest as a work of art. Michael Holroyd, in his brilliant but not wholly convincing Introduction, aligns it with the 20th-century movement for the ‘cross-fertilising’ of fiction and non-fiction and for liberating biography from Victorian trammels. He compares it with Elizabeth and Essex, Some People and I, Claudius and would have us see it as tethered to none of the genres, whether biography, history or fiction. Thus, ‘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,’ and: ‘Peterley Harvest is another attempt to combine the advantages of both worlds by attaching the substance of biography to the freedom of fiction.’ This doesn’t seem quite right, and I think we must firmly declare Peterley Harvest to be a novel.

The plot of this novel is that the young Peterley, son and heir of a Quaker family long established in the Chilterns, has been sojourning in Australia, as an alternative to marriage, but in 1930, when his diary begins, he has just returned to England and the family mansion. His father, a crusted Tory who holds that ‘the first of a man’s relationships is to the State,’ asks him what he is going to do. This he cannot answer, and over the ensuing decade the question is one that haunts his diary. Peterley is tall, ‘with that strength and slight irregularity of face that women find handsome, especially when matched with blond hair and blue eyes’. He has dented, if not broken, one or two hearts in Australia and, for want of a better occupation, continues to philander, acquiring another ‘mistress’ or two. There is also, however, the duty of a dynastic marriage – for which there is required a quite different class of person: ‘One does not go to Sydenham for wives.’ A wine-snob and a social snob, with mild literary aspirations, supercilious, self-dramatising and ineffective, Peterley drifts through some eight years, with little to look back on save a frigid marriage and the wrecking of the life of one of his mistresses (the Sydenham one, cast off for ‘dynastic’ reasons).

It is by now Munich time, and Peterley finds himself unexpectedly pricked by a sense of national shame and is spurred into self-forgetting action, founding an association for the defence of Czechoslovakia. He finances it largely out of his own pocket, works night and day and even manages to co-opt his Nazi-sympathising cousin Richard (‘if it means no more than signing letters’). There follow two confused and serio-comic missions to Prague; but before long, for some reason or other (ancestral taint? mal du siècle? post-imperial decadence?), his purpose wavers. Soon Peterley, once more the flâneur and womaniser, is actually wasting the time of Jan Masaryk, whose country is in its death-agonies, by petty jealousies over a girl. There is, he decides despairingly, only one thing left for him, to return to Australia, ‘this time for life-long exile’.

It is a novel, you might say, bred out of Ford Madox Ford, Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, and is by no means without interest. It does not help, though, to say, as Michael Holroyd seems to, that in it autobiography has been imaginatively transmuted into fiction – for that is true of almost any novel. Its originality lies just in the opposite direction, that (on the analogy of Thomas Russell and Wordsworth) bits of existing reality (public events, and extracts from the author’s own diary) have been incorporated into it untransmuted. The form of this novel, that of a diary, is of course designed exactly for this purpose: the fusion of fiction and unprocessed fact is made easy by the leading feature of a diary – its gaps. Thus the librarian-like activities of Pennington can be spliced into the gentleman-of-leisure activities of David Peterley without awkwardness: the explanation, the reader is invited to suppose, would be found in the gaps, the weeks or months in which there are no diary entries. The gaps, were they filled, would likewise explain how Peterley comes to attend lectures on the principles of bibliography at University College or spend days on the textual elucidation of the poet Cleveland. The book’s form, therefore, does not offer technical challenge at the artistic level, though rather more at the hoodwinking one, and the achievement, it seems to me, is correspondingly slight. One supposes that, for the novel really to work, Peterley’s diary should catch him out – should reveal to the reader a pattern hidden from, or at any rate only belatedly discovered by the diarist himself. However, as Pennington has written the novel, most of such ‘significance’, and historical representativeness, as attaches to Peterley is supplied by Peterley himself, in his graver diary-musings – and he is not a witness we are particularly inclined to listen to.

The point ties in with the ‘hoodwinking’ aspect, if we think hoodwinking was intended. For to convince ourselves that this is no genuine diary, we need do no more than look at its prose. When we read ‘If the Czech Association is still alive and vocal and critical, it is only because in my small upper room at the cottage, in these star-filled silences at night, I go through the correspondence that arrives from Englishmen who are becoming uneasy and from Czechs who are on the brink of despair,’ we know that what we are getting is not a man writing about himself (for even a very self-dramatising man would hardly write so) but a man novelistically posed and depicted, with an eye to historical effect, by another person. I may add that there really was a Czech Association and it did, as Peterley Harvest relates, publish four broadsheets or pamphlets, three by R.W. Seton-Watson and one by Jonathan Griffin. They may be ‘extremely rare’, as Peterley informs us, but this time the British Library has them safely. Also, the Association’s founder and Honorary Secretary was Richard Pennington, if we are to believe his entry in Who’s Who in Canada. I can find, though, no other evidence for this fact. Thus another little puzzle presents itself; and if someone gave me a grant, I would gladly unravel it.

‘I, who had always thought of leaving something well written as the fruit of a contemplative life ... ’: so writes David Peterley, in a desponding mood. These I think are the shadows from which Richard Pennington longed to emerge and this the sense of exile from which he suffered. He wanted to be a writer, a very reasonable desire – even wanted perhaps, in his daydeams, that people should say of him as he did of Housman: ‘I am sure that this greatest of living English men will be great even among the dead.’ He played a noble part towards Christopher Brennan, and Brennan, though indisputably a writer, felt himself a doomed exile too, cheated of Europe and cheated of fame. This must be the link between Richard Pennington and his ‘David Peterley’: he yearned for the sunshine of literary success and eventually took a faintly nefarious step (‘nefarious’ only in inverted commas) towards winning it.