Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The greatest man I have ever met

‘Dined with Henry James alone at the Reform Club. He was perfectly wonderful. By far the greatest man I have ever met - and yet amazingly humble and affectionate - absolutely delightful.’ This is Hugh Walpole, the English novelist, confiding in his diary following a first meeting with the great American author. Walpole - born 140 years ago today - kept a diary for much of his life, though the only publicly available extracts can be found in Rupert Hart-Davis’s 1950 biography.

Walpole was born on 13 March 1884 in Auckland, New Zealand, the eldest of three children in a religious family. In 1889, his father - Rev Somerset Walpole - accepted an academic post in New York, while Hugh was sent to England, to a prep school first followed by Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Marlow, and Kings School in Canterbury, After his father’s appointment as principal of Bede College, Durham, Hugh spent the last four years of his secondary education as a day boy at Durham School. From 1903 to 1906, Walpole studied history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he had a first essay published in the college magazine, and where he fell under the spell of A. C. Benson, a don at Magdalene College - see also A. C. Benson’s inner life.

After unsuccessful attempts at teaching and lay reading in the Anglican church, Walpole devoted himself to writing and to reviewing books. Through Benson, he met Henry James, and the two developed a close friendship. Walpole published his first novel, The Wooden Horse, in 1909, but his first commercial success came two years later with the tragi-comedy Mr Perrin and Mr Traill. In 1914, James wrote an article for The Times Literary Supplement identifying Walpole as one of the finest young British novelists. 

Ineligible for military service in World War I because of poor eyesight, Walpole worked in Russia, first for the Red Cross, winning the Cross of St George for rescuing a wounded soldier under fire, and later as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau during the Russian Revolution. He drew on this experience for The Dark Forest (1916) and The Secret City (1919), the latter being joint winner of the inaugural James Tait Black Memorial Prize. After the war, he continued to publish novels, The Cathedral (1922), and Wintersmoon (1928). In 1930, he began his most popular series of novels starting with Rogue Herries, set in Cumberland in the mid-eighteenth century, and concluding with Vanessa (1933). He also wrote critical works on Anthony Trollope, Sir Walter Scott, and Joseph Conrad.

Walpole’s commercial success enabled him to maintain a flat in Piccadilly, London, and a large house overlooking Derwentwater in the Lake District. A discreet homosexual, he spent much time and energy looking for ‘the ideal friend’ but from 1926 to his death, his chief companion was Harold Cheevers, a married former policeman whose official role was as his chauffeur. Walpole died in 1941, further information is available from Wikipedia, The Walpole Chronicles, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Walpole started keeping a diary in 1904, and kept up the habit for the rest of his life. Rupert Hart-Davis, author of Hugh Walpole - A Biography (Macmillan, 1952) - lists the diaries as his top two sources, identifying them as follows: ‘The daily diary which Hugh Walpole kept from 1904 until his death. The entries vary from a whole page to half a dozen lines. They were mostly written down immediately and have proved factually reliable;’ and ‘the fifteen volumes of the journal which he kept intermittently from 1923 to 1941’. Indeed, he interweaves mentions of, and quotes from, the diaries more than 100 times. 

Although there are no published collections of extracts from the diaries and journals, Walpole himself had Robert Maclehose & Co print 100 copies of a 60-page volume he called Extracts from a Diary. It is extremely rare today, and I have not been able to find any online source for or about the book. However, Simon Dunant’s blog on Walpole describes how he obtained a copy in 2020.

The following extracts - with Walpole diary excerpts italicised for clarity - are taken from Hart-Davis’s biography (freely available to borrow online at Internet Archive).

‘In the autumn of [1904] he began what was to be his lifelong habit of keeping a diary. Initially a spasmodic affair, much given to undergraduate introspection and self-exhortation, it soon turned into a regular daily account of his movements and thoughts. One of the first entries reads: “At work, at games, I am mediocre and almost worse, no looking-glass can flatter my self-esteem, and I have a wonderful liking for the wrong thing. But I have been imagining a universal popularity.” There is much discussion of his new literary favourites, Conrad and Meredith, while the latest novel of his old idol Marion Crawford is judicially condemned: “The Juggernaut of Popularity is on him and he has submitted.” Occasionally there is a flash forecasting the novelist to be, as when he writes: “I love a windy night chiefly, I think, because the powers of Good and Evil seem to be abroad,” but mostly the entries might have been written by any first-year undergraduate, until at the end of the year the second main theme of his life is introduced:

Meanwhile I still wait for the ideal friend . . . I’d give a lot for the real right man.” ’

* * *

‘In the first flush of keeping a diary at Cambridge, Hugh wrote: “Of the two years spent at M. I shall say no more. Hell is realised by me for I have shared in it. I do not know that I look back on it with real regret - it has taught me much that is bad, but I have learnt sympathy. Every man, who is a man, must have his Hyde, and M. produced mine. The excessive desire to be loved that has always played so enormous a part in my life was bred largely, I think, from the neglect I suffered there.” And there is no doubt that these two years did crystallise in his imagination the concept of Evil as an actively embodied force which must be combated, and thus supplied him with the theme of almost all his books. That’s the way romantic writers are made, by having your nose rubbed in the mud, by knowing what fear is, by loneliness, a small boy crying in his bed at night.’

* * *

‘Here are some typical extracts from his diary [1906-1907]: 

Oct. 3. Rushed back to give apprentices tea, but they never turned up. “Happy Party” at the Institute. Musical chairs etc.

Oct. 9. Spent the morning hunting for apprentices. Visited six ships but only secured about three boys.’

Oct. 15. Visited one ship, but suddenly the back of my bags split and I had to rush home.

Oct. 25. Tried a new way to the hostel and got lost.

Nov. 4. Tried to nail some chaps coming out of Mason’s for tea, but they fought shy of me. I hate touting.

Feb. 4. Evening at the Institute. Played ludo upstairs to any extent. The room was icy cold.

Feb. 9. Operated raffle and twopenny dip at bazaar, also sold under- clothing and baby garments for two hours.

Feb. 11. Badly beaten at draughts by a cadaverous sailor.

Feb. 17. Down to service at the Institute, where I read the wrong lesson.” ’


’Their first meeting [i.e Walpole and Henry James in 1909] is recorded only by Hugh’s brief diary note: “Dined with Henry James alone at the Reform Club. He was perfectly wonderful. By far the greatest man I have ever met - and yet amazingly humble and affectionate - absolutely delightful. He talked about himself and his books a good deal and said some very interesting things. It was a wonderful evening.” ’

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