E.S. Turner

  • Augustus Hare: Victorian Gentleman by Malcolm Barnes
    Allen and Unwin, 240 pp, £20.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 04 920100 X
  • Midway on the Waves by James Lees-Milne
    Faber, 248 pp, £10.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 571 13723 7

After his first novel was published, Somerset Maugham was a frequent guest at Holmhurst, in Sussex, of that indiscreet memoirist, Augustus Hare, then in his sixties. At morning worship, with the servants, Maugham noticed that the wording of the prayers was unfamiliar. ‘I’ve crossed out all the passages in glorification of God,’ explained Hare. ‘God is certainly a gentleman, and no gentleman cares to be praised to his face. It is tactless, impertinent and vulgar. I think all that fulsome adulation must be highly offensive to him.’

Even as a child, warned of an all-seeing eye, Augustus seems to have sensed that God was a gentleman, for according to Malcolm Barnes’s biography, he asked: ‘Does God look through the keyhole?’ It has to be said that as an author and gentleman Hare would certainly have relished some fulsome adulation: instead of which he was accused, on the strength of his six-volume autobiography, of being tactless, impertinent and vulgar.

It is a pity there are not more outside glimpses to be obtained of the peripatetic Hare, a man who ate more hot dinners in other people’s houses than anyone of his age, yet avoided the company of literary men, perhaps because they tended not to be gentlemen. (He once left a note for Maugham pointing out his vulgar error in asking for a ‘drink’, instead of ‘something to drink’, which may well have stimulated Nancy Mitford to write her essay on Hare.) Sir Osbert Sitwell has testified to the mild panic which met Hare’s arrival at a garden party at Renishaw, when ‘the ladies held their hats to their heads and fled, fearing that he might include them in his next book.’ A useful peep, to be sure: but, regrettably, almost all the facts about Hare have to be extracted from his own works.

Though he served his generation well as a writer of reliable guidebooks, Hare is remembered almost wholly for the singular tales of Victorian high life to be found embedded in his grossly padded autobiography. Malcolm Barnes has already rendered down the six volumes of The Story of My Life into two, which were published over thirty years ago. Readers unfamiliar with these, or with the original, may wish that Barnes had included more of Hare’s delectable anecdotes in the present work, if only to show what so agitated the reviewers. Here, at least, is the account of the savage-looking Shah of Persia, at Hatfield, amusing himself with ‘monkeyish and often dirty tricks’, like wiping his wet hands on the coat-tails of the gentleman next to him, and when the Baroness Burdett-Coutts was presented to him, looking her in the face and exclaiming: ‘Quelle horreur!’ One will search in vain for Hare’s account of the obsequies of the tenth Duke of Hamilton, who elected to be buried in an Egyptian princess’s sarcophagus too small for him. ‘Double me up! Double me up!’ were his parting words, but no amount of doubling up would suffice and they had to cut his feet off (his mausoleum by contrast was of unusually ample dimensions, being 120 feet high and visible for miles). Nor will one find that vintage Hare story of the pretty peasant woman living near Belvoir who was asked why her middle tooth was missing and replied that the Duchess (of Rutland) had lost the corresponding tooth and ‘forced me to have mine taken out to replace it’.

It was on such anecdotes, gathered largely from fellow guests and much retold, that Hare dined out; and it was the retelling of them in print that eventually called in question his own gentlemanly status (‘wholly without delicacy’, ‘wanting in propriety’). There were also objections to Hare’s revelations of how he had been abused as a child, which were seen as a discourtesy to those who had abused him. ‘What is Mr Hare?’ demanded Blackwood’s. ‘He is neither anybody nor nobody – neither male nor female, neither imbecile nor wise ...’ and so on, in a rare tizzy.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in