Archive for the ‘Hugh Walpole’ Category

Not my own copy, but a dust jacket of an early edition.

Not my own copy, but a dust jacket of an early edition.

The Old Ladies by Hugh Walpole ~ 1924. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1924. Hardcover. 305 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Ah, Hugh Walpole.

Protégé of Henry James, friend and compatriot of such disparate fellow writers as J.B. Priestley, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, yet, unlike them, mostly forgotten today. Hugh Walpole in his time enjoyed tremendous popularity, though the crueler critics dismissed his work as too facile, too easy to read, too – well – popular.

During his peak writing years, 1909 to 1941, Walpole produced a volume a year (sometimes more) of novels and story collections ranging in tone from the romantic to the dramatic, with ventures into the macabre. Some of his works are small masterpieces of their type.

Some, not so much. A prime example of the B-list is this overlong novel, wherein Walpole takes the material for (at best) a novella, and stretches it out to three hundred pages, when half that would likely have sufficed.

I must say points to the man for keeping it readable, for though The Old Ladies in their uncomfortable dotage got a bit tiresome I was never tempted to abandon them completely, though I had a moment at the close where the urge to give the book a sharp shake (in lieu of its long-defunct author) was only resisted with a strong effort. Walpole brings his tale to a tragically overwrought conclusion, then tacks on a cheerful “prodigal’s return” to the very end, which I must admit is soothing to the reader worried about the most likeable of the titular old ladies, but which was just too darned convenient for my comfort.

The plot:

Three elderly ladies (all are in their seventies) who have fallen on hard times find themselves living in a shabby rooming house in the cathedral town of Polchester (imaginary setting of many of Hugh Walpole’s tales) presided over by a mostly benevolent landlady.

One, the sweet-natured and mild-tempered Mrs. Amorest, is the widow of a poet, who died quite suddenly (in the best tradition of his kind) leaving behind nothing but manuscripts and debts.

The next, also-widowed Mrs. Payne, slovenly and indolent, regrets nothing of her slightly sordid past. She thinks back seldom of her weakly abusive husband and her deserting lover and her long-dead child, concentrating her energies instead upon the comforts of the now, indulging herself with sweets and rich food and dashes of brilliant colour – a ribbon, an ornament, an illustration – which she hoards like an obese dragon in her over-filled lair.

Joining the modest ménage is spinster Miss Beringer, who creeps into the refuge of the old house with her shivering little dog. Miss Beringer has been cheated out of her modest investment capital; her small savings are running out; her future is beyond bleak. She owns one item of beauty and value, an amber carving given to her by her one friend as a remembrance upon the friend’s marriage and subsequent removal to India.

Gentle Mrs. Amorest takes slightly-lower-class Miss Beringer under her wing, not letting on that her own prospects are also desperately declining. Mrs. Payne scorns both of the other residents of the house, despising their meekness and their willingness to run errands for her as evidence of their mental inferiority. She uses them both to the utmost of her cunning ability, and when an ailing cousin of Mrs. Amorest promises a fortune in his will, and Miss Beringer’s amber ornament catches Mrs. Payne’s eye, she begins turn her mental energies to the question of how she can obtain these treasures from her housemates.

Walpole paints a sharply detailed picture of the come-down-in-the-world existences of his three characters. Their thoughts and feelings, their many small economies and occasional overwhelming temptations, their midnight worries and daytime attempts at hiding those fears from the world around them are all sympathetically portrayed.

Small daily drama turns to smouldering melodrama when Mrs. Amorest’s cousin dies and the will is read. Balked of her bad intentions towards one of her neighbours, Mrs. Payne turns her malignant focus upon the other, with devastating results. Only one of the old ladies will walk away from the house with her sanity intact and her future provided for, even if it takes an authorial intervention to bring this about…

Recommended only for those who are already admirers of Hugh Walpole’s eclectically prolific oeuvre. All others, perhaps best to start elsewhere, with The Joyful Delaneys (1938), or Hans Frost (1929), or the critically acclaimed early novel Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1911), or perhaps the recently rediscovered and dramatized Rogue Herries (1930), first of a four book sequence, and thought by many to be the crème-de-la-crème of Hugh Walpole’s dramatic novels.

My rather unenthusiastic rating of The Old Ladies aside, even a B-list Walpole stands up well to the interested scrutiny of a modern reader. One wishes him a revival, which does indeed seem to be occurring in a low-key way. I add my voice to those who quietly extol his better qualities, and who collect and read his many works with mild enthusiasm.

 

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Here are some more of my decidedly well-appreciated Century of Reading Project books from months ago, as the calendar continues its relentless turning to the close of 2014.

jeremy trilogy hugh walpole 001The Jeremy Stories, 1919-1927, by Hugh Walpole.

These three novels belong together, being a trilogy of the boyhood adventures of a certain young Jeremy Cole, based on the younger days of the author himself, but with much creative leeway. The setting of the Jeremy books was an imaginary cathedral town, Polchester, which the author created fabricated by combining features of real towns Truro and Durham. Polchester worked so well that Hugh Walpole used it as a setting for a great number of his other novels.

While the Jeremy books are about a child, they are not necessarily children’s books, being written from a decidedly adult perspective of looking back on juvenile thoughts and feelings, and sometimes relating them to the person the child was to become.

Thoughtful, moving, and frequently very funny, these books were tremendously popular in their time, enough so that “Jeremy” enjoyed quite a vogue as a boys’ name in the years after their publication, while Walpole’s authorial star was still on its blazing way up the literary sky.

I believe all three of these titles are available online through Project Gutenberg, though I of course recommend the vintage paper versions as the very best way to savour their goodness.

Jeremy and his canine familiar, Hamlet, portrayed by E.H. Shepard in the 1919 edition of Jeremy.

Jeremy and his canine familiar, Hamlet, as portrayed by E.H. Shepard in the 1919 edition of Jeremy.

Jeremy by Hugh Walpole ~ 1919. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1919. Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 341 pages.

We meet Jeremy on the morning of his eight birthday, December 8, 1892, and follow him through the next year, until his departure for boarding school. This first installment in what would eventually be three books about Jeremy is tremendously autobiographical in nature, with Walpole continuously shifting back and forth from first person descriptions of his own childhood to that of young Jeremy. Jeremy is not, however, Walpole himself; he is instead a slightly separated compatriot, an amalgam of the real and the plausibly imagined. Chapters focussing on Jeremy’s sisters – one older, one younger – add greatly to the narrative.

Jeremy and Hamlet by Hugh Walpole ~ 1923. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1923. Hardcover. 305 pages.

It is 1894, and Jeremy is now 10 years old. He’s away at school for a goodly portion of this tale, and his mongrel dog Hamlet, a terrier-something-type, acquired during the time of the first book, Jeremy, is left behind at home. Walpole takes a creditable stab at looking at the world from a dog’s eye view, and by and large pulls it off. Jeremy has his trials and tribulations off at school, as Hamlet does back at home, but both win through by applying their pugnacious tenacity to their various challenges.

Jeremy at Crale: His Friends, His Ambitions and His One Great Enemy by Hugh Walpole ~ 1927. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1927. Hardcover. 356 pages.

Now fifteen, Jeremy is in his third year at his public school, Crale. He’s something of a popular success, finding himself very good indeed at football. He acquires an enemy, whom he meets in schoolboy combat with the expected results. By the end of the tale he is well on the way to adulthood, having staunchly weathered all of the challenges of early adolescence in a boys’ school atmosphere. We part with Jeremy just as he is making tentative advances to a new friend, and we have no doubt that this latest relationship will prove a lasting and mutually beneficial one. This last novel is perhaps the most stereotypical of the lot, as Jeremy submerges much of his quirky personality in order to survive amongst the rather brutal masculine peer group of the school. Walpole reportedly had some rather dismal school experiences, and we do catch a lot of that angst, though Jeremy is thick-skinned enough to survive such encounters as his creator perhaps had more trouble with during his own school days. Favourably compared to Kipling’s Stalky & Co. in contemporary reviews, and I concur, though I’ve never been an early 20th Century British public school boy myself so can only relate at a very far distance. 😉

My collective rating: 9/10. Very much deserving of a more in-depth examination, as I couldn’t find much at all about these appealing and now-obscure books online.

passenger to teheran vita sackville-west 1926Passenger to Teheran by Vita Sackville-West ~ 1926. This edition: Arrow Books, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-09-973350-1. 128 pages.

My rating: 8/10

If I could give this opinionated travel memoir a subtitle, I’d rather meanly suggest “People Not Like Us”, because Vita Sackville-West is in full snob mode from start to finish, though to be fair she does call herself on it very briefly at one point, murmuring something to the effect that she realizes the quaint Egyptian peasants are noteworthy mostly because they are “exotic”, and that their compatriots back home in England are viewed as not being worthy of a similar romanticism, being too, too dreary for words, because of overfamiliarity.

Despite the annoyance this writer’s aristocratically-exclusive self-regard always triggers in me, I do like her style and persist in reading her works of fiction and memoir with true pleasure.

In 1926 Vita Sackville-West travelled solo through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean, and through Egypt, Iraq and Persia (as Iran was then called) to the Persian capitol of Teheran, where she was to join her husband, diplomatic counsellor Harold Nicolson, for a long visit which was to include attendance at the coronation of Shah Reza Khan.

Vita’s opening words regarding travel writing to the contrary, this book is a tiny masterpiece of observation, telling us as much about its writer as about the people and places she observes.

Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen in Hong-Kong. Not only do we not want to hear it verbally, but we do not want—we do not really want, not if we are to achieve a degree of honesty greater than that within the reach of most civilised beings—to hear it by letter either. Possibly this is because there is something intrinsically wrong about letters. For one thing they are not instantaneous. If I write home to-day and say (as is actually the fact), “At this moment of writing I am sailing along the coast of Baluchistan”, that is perfectly vivid for me, who have but to raise my eyes from my paper to refresh them with those pink cliffs in the morning light; but for the recipient of my letter, opening it in England at three weeks’ remove, I am no longer coasting Baluchistan; I am driving in a cab in Bagdad, or reading in a train, or asleep, or dead; the present tense has become meaningless…

After the coronation visit and a certain amount of exploration of the Iranian countryside, Vita returned to England by a circuitous route; by train through Russia, Poland, Germany, Holland and then back home to England.

…I forget the name of the German village; I know only that I had three hours’ sleep in a clean little room with an iron bedstead and a blue tin basin, and that we were all in a train again by six the next morning. That day passed in a haze: Königsberg; a long wait there, drinking coffee out of thick cups and looking at photographs in the German papers of the scenes in Warsaw; then another train; the Polish Corridor; East Prussia; Berlin. Farewell to my companions, who were to scatter to their destinations. The efficiency of Berlin; the quick, good taxi, striped black and white like a bandbox; the lighted streets; the polished asphalt; the Kaiserhof. I was travel-stained and tired; the servants at the Kaiserhof looked at me with polite suspicion; I revenged myself on them by sending for the head waiter, ordering the best dinner and the most expensive wine, and by distributing enormous tips out of my wad of American notes. As I had not had a proper meal since leaving Moscow, I took a good deal of trouble over the ordering of that dinner. I was afraid I might have to spend the night in Berlin, but I discovered a train that left for Flushing at ten; next morning found me in Holland. The customs-house officer at the Dutch frontier made me an offer of marriage. Then everything began to rush. Was I on the sea? very rough, too; beautiful, green, white-crested waves; was I at Folkestone? with English voices talking round me? was that Yew Tree Cottage and the path across the fields? Were those the two pistons at Orpington, still going up and down, and still a little wrong? Was I standing on the platform at Victoria, I who had stood on so many platforms? The orange labels dangled in the glare of the electric lamps. PERSIA, they said; PERSIA.

A note on the Arrow Books edition: This does not include any of the photographs from the original publication. If possible, try to attain one of the illustrated editions; the pictures are a fascinating enhancement of the text.

At a mere 128 pages this is a highly condensed version of Vita’s travels, but every word is, as was expected, perfectly placed.

Recommended.

the land the people rachel peden 001The Land, The People by Rachel Peden ~ 1966. This edition: Knopf, 1966. Illustrated by Sidonie Coryn. Hardcover. 332 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Rachel Peden, in discussing her intent in The Land, the People, written in the later years of her life, and in the third decade of her writing career, had this to say:

I wanted the land to be the main character, and to write about the family farm, its change, survival, character, and of people’s love of the land and need of it as a basic human hunger…To say man is of the earth and that his well-being, even his very survival, depends on an occasional return to it is not enough. It is important to try to find out why this is true…

At first I thought I would start by saying that this book is not for everyone, perhaps, being a quiet yet rock-solid tribute to a particular place and a particular people, but on further pondering I think I am mistaken.

It may appeal most to the country dweller, or to the person who cherishes his or her rural roots, or to the historian of a certain era of American farming in a certain locale, but its message is universal.

Rachel Peden, in this calmly powerful book and in her other two appreciations of farm and country life, Rural Free and Speak to the Earth, and in her thousands of newspaper columns composed and published over four decades, from the 1940s to the mid-1970s, emphasizes over and over again the necessity for even the most dedicated urbanite to occasionally stoop down, as it were, and to touch the Great Mother and for a moment or two remember where we came from, and what ultimately sustains us.

Peden cast her writerly net wide, and caught up a diverse array of characters, incidents and episodes. Her style moves gracefully from the everyday to the poetic and back again with enviable ease; truly a reader’s delight.

Rachel Peden’s personal patch of earth was Monroe County, Indiana. She came from a long line of farm people, married a farmer, and was succeeded, after her death at 74 years of age in 1975, by her son and his family on the family acres. The Land, the People is to a great extent a memoir, her private testament to her own origins, and, on a higher level, a statement of her heartfelt belief in the importance of maintaining a strongly local farming tradition.

Watching the encroachment of urban sprawl, the increased mechanization and consolidation of what once were smallholdings into factory farms, and the casual acceptance of food staples arriving in some of America’s best farming regions from all around the world – lower cost trumping higher quality in many cases, not to mention the associated abandonment of small-plot farming as a viable career in a modern age – Peden calls out to her readers to be very careful as to where they are going, and to look back at where they came from, before it is too late.

Now, this sounds rather serious and dark and gloomy, but I assure you that this is far from being the case. Rachel Peden is no Cassandra; her observations are never full of woe. She never, ever preaches, but appeals instead to us as equals who recognize and appreciate the dilemmas (and not infrequent joys) experienced by farmers and country dwellers everywhere.

Much of the appeal of her writing is in her continual descriptions of the natural wonders which life on the land continually spread before one, from the tiniest of spring flowers to the most venerable of oak trees being toppled by lightning; insects and birds and animals; and, most lovingly, people of all sorts and ages. Community, in its broadest and best sense.

Four episodes make up The Land, the People. Each sets a different tone; each is a grand piece of writing; each makes me wish that Rachel Peden had written more long-form pieces rather than being bound to the conventions of the newspaper articles which made up the vast bulk of her work.

  • High Gap Is the Lord’s – Rachel Peden’s father was an accomplished orchardist, and this first piece is both childhood memoir concerning Rachel and her siblings, and a loving remembrance of her perfectionist father and sensitive and practical mother.
  • The Starling’s Voice – A short, intense depiction (fictional?) of a man’s obsession with his plot of land.
  • Wide and Starry Night – A memoir and fond biography of Rachel’s beloved father-in-law, Walter Peden.
  • The Fulness of Maple Grove – Rachel speaks to her own piece of land, and to her role as wife and mother, as well as her vision of herself and her family as custodians of their “borrowed” acres, preserving and increasing their farm’s fertility for future generations.

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the blind man's house hugh walpoleThe Blind Man’s House by Hugh Walpole ~ 1941. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1941. Hardcover. 337 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Sir Julius Cromwell, blinded many years before by a bullet to the head in the Great War, has recently married the lovely and impetuous Celia, fifteen years his junior. The two are still in the physically passionate honeymoon stage of their relationship, Celia’s husband adores and indulges her, and she worships him; they are moving to a country estate in the town where Sir Julius grew up; a warm welcome by the locals is anticipated. So why does Celia feel so apprehensive and sick with fear, and why does she cringe away from the sightless gaze of her husband’s beautiful blue eyes?

Everybody loves Sir Julius, from the youngest vicarage child to his servants to the one surviving member of the noble family whose ancestral home Sir Julius has just taken over. Even the handsome Jim Burke, well-born but looked down on with disdain for his wandering ways and philandering approach to the local young women, has settled into a remarkably stable relationship as a companion-odd job man to Sir Julius; the two are comfortable in each others’ company, and Jim reads aloud by the hour to Sir Julius and is his intellectual equal in their long shared talks together.

The young Mrs. Cromwell, on the other hand, is not going over so well. Her hasty temper and impulsive ways wreak domestic havoc and Sir Julius is frequently called upon to smooth ruffled feathers. Celia is well meaning and vivacious; she soon realizes that she is making some bitter enemies among the local ladies – most particularly and seemingly without cause with the vicar’s wife, but she is floundering with how best to make friends and handle her servants tactfully.

When it becomes obvious to all that Jim Burke is looking with admiring eyes at the lovely wife of his employer-friend, gossip starts to ferment and Celia’s popularity takes a further nosedive. When the two are witnessed in an embrace in the woods, whispers become outspoken words, and Sir Julius’ happy world starts to crumble around him.

This is a readable though occasionally melodramatic examination of the psychological effects of blindness both on the blind man and on everyone around him. Much as Sir Julius attempts to just get on with things, his injury is the elephant in the room, engendering endless speculation. Celia in particular can’t seem to get over her surprise that her husband’s other senses are so highly developed to make up for the loss of his sight; she is almost offended by the keenness of his hearing, by the delicacy of his touch, and by his uncanny ability to navigate through the darkest of rooms. Jim Burke has perhaps the most natural response to Sir Julius and the two mens’ friendship is sincere, despite the complications of the jointly admired Celia.

Just as I thought to myself that the story was taking on shades of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, what with the maimed husband, passionate young wife and handsome young retainer aspect and all, what does clever Walpole do but make reference to D.H. Lawrence in his own narrative, leading me to believe that the resemblance to the scenario is more than accidental.

It was as though (Celia) had been placed out of contact with everyone living. She picked up a book—a heavy brown volume on the table at her elbow. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. There had been a time when it had been the fashion among her friends to read Lawrence, as though there were a new gospel here. And perhaps there was. She could never be sure, because so much of The Rainbow and Women in Love bored and wearied her, and sometimes there were magnificent things.

But now she read on and on and it was as though Lawrence screamed in her ear, telling her that catastrophe was on the way. She could not understand why he rejected everything and everybody—rejection, hate, misery. And then would come some passage of natural description so lovely and quiet that his voice dropped to a loving encouraging whisper. He rejected all living human beings. He said again and again with sickening reiteration that he trusted no one. His dearest friends he would embrace at one moment and reject with loathing at the next. Everything revolved around himself. He was sick, he was poor, he was betrayed, and he said so over and over again. But he had genius, that strange gift of seeing everything and everybody for the first time, as though no one had ever lived on this earth before himself.

But his thin nervous cry increased her own fear. He was right. The world was dreadful because the people in it were dreadful—dreadful and menacing…

Poor Celia, and poor Sir Julius. Poor Jim Burke, too! For this love triangle evaporates into nothingness, leaving the married couple still in partnership with each other and leaving Jim to make peace with himself on the outside of society’s charmed circle after his brief time of friendship with his fellow kindred spirit.

Hugh Walpole capably weaves numerous personal histories together on his way through this domestic saga, and some of his characterizations are clever and beautifully poignant, particularly concerning the three vicarage children.  But ultimately I felt that The Blind Man’s House was something of a minor work; too busy with incident and attempts at analysis to ever really settle down into story; personalities only carrying the thing so far.

The Blind Man’s House is available online at Project Gutenberg Canada.

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the silver thorn hugh walpoleThe Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories by Hugh Walpole ~ 1928. This edition: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1928. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Fifteen short stories by the prolific Hugh Walpole, originally published in various periodicals between 1922 and 1928. An eclectic mix, including several quietly creepy horror stories: The Tiger, The Tarn, Major Wilbraham, and, in my opinion, for its Kafkaesque atmosphere, The Dove.

A more than readable collection, though I didn’t feel that most of these were “top rank” for the short story genre of their era. They share something of a common theme, of yearning for various things, and of regret for decisions made in the past, and of the inexorability of fate and the urges – with varying degrees of success –  to go against it.

A gentle yet pervasively melancholy mood hovers over these stories, though they have a certain degree of humour and occasional happy resolutions, though always with an ironic twist. Shadows of the recent Great War and its effect on the collective psyche are very apparent in this collection; an interesting example of English literature between the 20th Century’s two world wars.

  • The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles – Two lady-friends keep shop together (fancy work and antiquities) in Silverton-on-Sea, but their happy establishment appears to be about to dissolve when the younger receives a proposal of marriage from a very eligible man.
  • The Tiger – Londoner Homer Brown dreams of being hunted by a tiger in the jungle; the dream accompanies him to New York, where it comes inexorably to a shocking climax.
  • No Unkindness Intended – Elderly, slovenly, ineffectual Mr. Hannaway, vicar of a city parish, is offhandedly dismissed from parlour after parlour, and things look dreary indeed until his path crosses that of a similarly situated small dog.
  • Ecstasy – A modestly successful poet who has been musing about his life and his twenty-year-old marriage and wondering where the ecstasy of the younger years has vanished to spends an afternoon with a tramp and regains hold of the key to contentment.
  • A Picture – Two lovers discover their essential differences over opinions of a small oil painting.
  • Old Elizabeth – A Portrait – An unemotional family, habitually unsentimental, are brought to their figurative knees by an elderly servant.
  • The Etching – Bullying Mrs. Gabriel goes too far when her otherwise meek husband discovers and indulges a passion for collecting old etchings.
  • Chinese Horses – This is one of the star stories of the collection, to my mind, elaborating on the theme of the first story, The Little Donkeys. Middle-aged Miss Henrietta Maxwell has nothing in the world but her beloved house, which she is forced to let due to financial difficulties after the war. An opportunity arises to bring her standard of living back to a higher level, but is it worth the compromises required?
  • The Tarn – The second horror story of the collection, and a very effective one at that. Author Fenwick’s life has always been shadowed by the more successful Foster; now the two are together as Foster seeks conciliation for the bitterness Fenwick feels. Fenwick isn’t really interested in making friends with his rival…
  • Major Wilbraham – An unusual story about a retired army major and his personal religious epiphany and its tragic – or is it truly tragic? – result. I am undecided as to whether this is a supernatural tale, or merely an attempt by the author at a religious allegory of sorts.
  • A Silly Old Fool – A chance remark by a patronizing wealthy parishioner changes Canon Morphew’s life, as he becomes aware of the possibility of seeking and attaining romantic love. But striving is not always rewarded with success…
  • The Enemy – Bookseller Harding is annoyed by the insistence of chatty neighbour Tonks to act as though they are close friends. He really just wants to be left alone to go his solitary way. Or does he?
  • The Enemy in Ambush – Stiff and very proper Captain John Ford boards out in Moscow with a family of emotional Russians, with a view to improving his Russian language skills. Cultures clash, with the stiff upper lip taking precedence, until Mrs. Ford shows up to accompany her husband home.
  • The Dove – In the years after the Great War, society seeks to understand the root causes of the recent conflict. One Percy Alderness-Slumber is inspired to go to Germany to investigate the feelings and emotions of the common people, hoping to gain some insight to bring back to England and share. His meekness and well-meaning lead to his ultimate undoing, as he becomes embroiled in a Kafkaesque scenario with his German landlady. A horror story not involving the supernatural realm, and one I know I will remember with a quiet shudder. Looking over the stories in this collection, I’m wondering if The Dove doesn’t rather stand out, along with Chinese Horses, as my most personally memorable.
  • Bachelors – Harry and his ten-tears-older brother Robin live in single happiness in the cathedral town of Polchester, and are well established as local “characters”. But one day Harry proposes to and is accepted to fluffily vivacious Miss Pinsent, and everything goes sideways for Robin. But is it a quiet personal tragedy, or a chance to live his own life at last?

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hans frost dj hugh walpoleHans Frost by Hugh Walpole ~1929. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1929. Stated First Edition. Hardcover. 356 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.

*****

No one perhaps in the United Kingdom was quite so frightened as was Nathalie Swan on the third day of November, 1924, sitting in a third-class carriage about quarter to five of a cold, windy, darkening afternoon. Her train was drawing her into Paddington Station, and how she wished that she were dead!

She sat in a corner on the hard, dusty seat, her hands clenched, her heart beating with hot, thick, hammering throbs. She wished that she were dead. She was an orphan. No one in the world needed her. The Proudies whom she was abandoning had been very, very good to her, but certainly did not need her. The famous Mrs. Frost to whom she was going would almost surely not be good to her–and as to needing her . . .

Open upon her lap was a number of that shiny geographically illustrated paper the London News, and among other portraits was one of Hans Frost, and under it was written:

Mr. Hans Frost, whose Seventieth Birthday occurs on November 3. His friends and admirers are marking the occasion with a suitable presentation.

She had had this face in front of her, framed in a neat black frame for the last six years, had carried it with her everywhere, had had it always in her bedroom wherever she might be. For was he not her uncle, her famous, marvellous uncle whom she had never seen but had made her hero, her conception of God, indeed, ever since she could remember?

Nineteen-year-old Nathalie arrives at her Aunt Ruth’s and Uncle Hans’ house, only to find that this is the night of that gala 70th birthday dinner. She’s tremendously relieved that she isn’t expected to attend, and after she is shown to her room, finally breaks down into tears of homesickness and apprehension, after her bags have been unpacked and her dinner delivered on a tray.

Meanwhile Hans Frost, the great writer, has received his guests and graciously accepted the wonderful gift his admirers have pooled together to purchase for him:

And it was a lovely thing! It was a very small oil painting and the artist was Manet.

The picture had for its subject two ladies and a gentleman outside a print shop in Paris. One lady wore a blue crinoline and the other a white; there was a little fuzzy white dog, the glass windows shone in the afternoon light, and beyond the pearl-grey wall of the old house there was a sky of broken blue and swollen white cloud. It was a very lovely little Manet. . . .

“Oh!” cried Hans Frost … He saw only the picture. He had always adored Manet, a painter closer to his soul than any other. He entered into the heart of a Manet at once, as though it had been painted for himself alone. He could be critical about everything else in the world (and was so), but not about Manet. When he was depressed or troubled by his liver he went and looked at Manet. . . . And now he would have a Manet all of his own, his very own–that deep and tender beauty, that blue crinoline, that fuzzy little dog, that white cloud against the gentle blue; these were his forever.

The dinner has been given, kind words have been spoken, Ruth has been a spectacular hostess – as always – but tonight an essential something has changed in Hans Frost’s world. He has unexpectedly met his niece, for, hearing her crying, he has gone into her room and comforted her – something of a surprise to both of them, especially Hans as he had not even known she was coming. The unexpected meeting has affected him strangely, triggering deep within him one of the creative impulses which have in the past led to the some of his best fictional creations. Hans feels like something is about to happen, an immense upheaval of his predictable, comfortable world, and of course, this being a novel, he is completely correct!

Hans, much to Ruth’s dismay, takes Nathalie under his wing and squires her about town. Ruth is deeply jealous of this new interest, this infatuation with the lovely young niece. She had assumed Nathalie would be far below Hans’ notice, and she immediately fears the worst, that the affection Hans feels for Nathalie is romantic, possible even sexual, though Hans has long since laid aside that part of his life, at least as far as Ruth is aware. But the relationship that has sprung into existence is something even more dangerous to Ruth’s peace of mind. Nathalie and Hans find they are true kindred spirits, and an idealized father-daughter, or rather, meeting-of-two-minds-as-equals friendship is quickly evolving.

Hans introduces Nathalie into the rather messy world of the striving writers, musicians and artists which Ruth has always scorned – at least until success and renown add a stamp of respectability to the untidy bohemians. Nathalie soon falls in love with a Russian refugee – London in 1924 is packed with “orphans of the storm” from the recent revolution – and Hans finds himself acting as benevolent advisor and rather bemused sponsor to the young lovers. Meanwhile, his own marriage is in deep trouble, as he decides that the only way he can return to a semblance of his former creativity as a writer is to break away from his comfortable life and his socially ambitious wife and retreat to some place of solitude to await the return of his muse.

Hans and Nathalie solve their respective dilemmas, but not before much drama, most of it involving an offended and officious Ruth. The ending of the story is delicately poignant and emotionally satisfying, and the author has a few surprises for his readers in how he tidies up all his many loose ends.

An engaging story, which I have enjoyed with renewed appreciation each time I’ve read it. Very much a period piece, but of a superior type, in that the modern reader can fully enter into and embrace the world that the author has created and captured for those of us willing to experience it almost a century later.

The author has a well-developed sense of the absurd, which he uses to create satirical observations of the more outrageous characters and habits of the time he’s portraying, all the while maintaining a rather sentimental tone regarding his sympathetic protaganists, while setting up his antagonists for their eventual rout. Walpole maintains a good balance throughout, showing the internal struggles which make even the least likeable characters very understandably human, and worthy of at least a morsel of our sympathy.

I wish I could express in words the special quality of Hugh Walpole’s writing in this novel, and why I find it so appealing, but I won’t bother with over-analysis for fear of destroying my affection for it by too much probing. No deep messages or life-and-death dramas, merely an entertaining tale, competently told, focussing on various human relationships. Not much more – but in this case that is quite enough.

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A blog post found in my internet wanderings, and too good not to share with those of you who have expressed an interest in Walpole. We are not alone!

Is it time for a Hugh Walpole revival of sorts?

  Other People's Words: The Quivering Pen Discovers Hugh Walpole

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Who is Hugh Walpole and Why Has He Invaded My Library?

When I tell you the story of how I met Hugh Walpole, I’d have to start off by saying something grandiose like “It was one of those moments when luck, timing and commerce converged.”

Mr. Walpole, for as much as I know him by now, would appreciate grandiosity, mottled with pomposity.  And, by the way, when I say “met Hugh Walpole,” I am strictly speaking in the biblio sense of the word.  The dude’s been dead for 69 years.

I discovered him on a bookshelf, dirty with neglect, in the garage of a modest house in the foothills of Butte, Montana…

Continued here:

David Abrams Books Blogspot – The Quivering Pen

Enjoy!

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Tthe joyful delaneys hugh walpolehe Joyful Delaneys by Hugh Walpole ~ 1938. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940. Hardcover. 401 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

Lost the half point because of the too-convenient wrap up of the ending. A very minor complaint!

What an enthralling read this was. Much better than expected.

*****

2013 is going to be  good reading year, if this omen is correct. The very first 2013 book, an ancient copy of one of Hugh Walpole’s London novels, The Joyful Delaneys, has been lurking on the edges of my awareness for at least ten years, possibly more. It was purchased at a library book sale, and its tattered condition, many interior stamps – Tulameen and Princeton had enthusiastic librarians! – and dog-eared and marked pages testify to its one-time popularity. This copy at least has been very well read.

Just not by me, until the last few days. The Joyful Delaneys was one of the lonely oddities left behind after my recent tidying of the bedroom bookshelves –  books which are sometimes the sole representatives of their author’s literary line in my collection, books I’m not quite sure about – stay or go? – will I really read this one again? – and books I haven’t read yet, but truly mean to, someday…

On January 1st, 2013, I finally picked up The Joyful Delaneys with the stern instruction to myself to just read this already and decide once and for all if it’s a keeper or a pass-along. Settling down with a mood of grim purpose to that self-imposed task, I was immediately surprised by the very first lines:

‘Happy New Year!’ Fred Delaney said, standing in the doorway and smiling at the in-no-way beautiful person of Mr. Munden.

He had switched on the electric light, and the illumination revealed Patrick Munden lying half in, half out of the bedclothes. No, he was not beautiful, his thin pointed face unshaven, his black hair spread about the pillow, his lean body protected from the cold by pyjamas, grey with blood-red stripes, by no means so fresh as they should be. The light pressed on Munden’s eyes and he opened them, stared wildly about him, then, cursing, buried his face in the pillow.

‘Happy New Year!’ Delaney said again.

‘What the hell–‘

Promising, no? And the serendipitous timing! A book opening with New Years Day, being read by me on New Years Day! A complete and utter unplanned coincidence. Surrendering to the moment, I settled down to my suddenly-not-so-tedious-seeming read. And was rewarded by its general excellence, much more so than I deserved for my previous neglect. Why, oh why, hadn’t I read this one earlier?!

Here’s a bit more, continuing the snippet from the first page.

‘Eight-thirty. You asked me as a special favour to call you.’

Munden raised his head and stared at Delaney. It was not a bad-looking face. The blue eyes were good, the forehead broad and clear, the chin finely pointed. He looked clever and peevish and hungry. He stretched himself, his open pyjama jacket showing a chest skeletonic and hairy. He rubbed his eyes with a hairy wrist.

‘Oh, it’s you, is it? Let me sleep, can’t you?’

Delaney watched him with genial good temper.

‘I’m doing you a favour. You said last night it would be the greatest of your life. You have to see the editor of something or other at ten sharp.’

‘He can go to hell. Turn the light off and let me sleep.’

‘You said I was to drag you out of bed if necessary–that your whole life depended on your getting there at ten.’

‘Well, it doesn’t. Let me sleep, can’t you?’

‘All right. But I’ll leave the light on . . .’

‘No, don’t go.’ Munden sat up, blinking. ‘How damnably fresh you look! It’s revolting. You were up till three, I don’t doubt–‘

‘I was,’ Delaney said cheerfully. ‘I don’t need a lot of sleep.’

‘Well, I do. . . . Oh, blast! Why did I ever tell you anything about it?’

‘You were very serious. Most earnest. You said you must begin the New Year properly.’

‘Speaking of which, can you lend me a fiver?’ Munden asked. ‘Only for a week.’

‘Afraid I haven’t got such a thing,’ Delaney said, laughing.

‘Hang it all, I paid you the rent only a week ago–‘

‘Thanks very much. But those are the terms, you know. If you don’t pay you go. Although we’d hate to lose you.’

Munden sighed.

‘Look in the trousers, old man, will you? They’re hanging over the chair. See if there’s anything there.’

Delaney looked in the trousers and found half a crown, some coppers, a lipstick and a half-filled packet of cigarettes. He laid these things on the dressing-table.

‘You don’t use lipstick, I hope, Patrick?’

‘No, of course not. What do you think I am? How much is there?’

‘Two and ninepence halfpenny.’

‘I’ll make them advance something on the two articles. You wouldn’t like to buy a Chrysler, would you?’

‘A Chrysler? Whatever for?’

‘It’s a marvellous bargain. Ponsonby’s only had it a year and simply not used it at all. He’d let you have it for one-fifty and I’d get a commission.’

Delaney laughed. ‘We go round in our Morris–just as we always have–same old family, same old Morris.’

Munden looked at him with curiosity. ‘I don’t understand you, Fred. You own this house; every bit of it is let to people who pay their rent. You’re none of you what I’d call extravagant and yet you never have any cash.’ He stared resentfully. He went on: ‘You’re a horrid sight–so cheerful and clean and bright. You’re all like that. I ought to hate the lot of you. So unintellectual too. You never read a book, have horrible bourgeois politics, believe in things, in England, beautiful virginal girls, Dickens, cricket, football. . . . Oh, God! You’re vile! I don’t know why I go on living here.’

*****

It seems like I’ve recently been reading authors who have been quite taken with T.S. Eliot – most recently Rumer Godden (in Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time) and Diana Wynne Jones (in Fire and Hemlock); here is a third. Hugh Walpole begins this beguiling novel with this quotation from Eliot’s The Rock:

When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city ?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

The answer, ultimately, is that the community wins over commerce, at least in this one instance, at least for a while. But there is a lot of ground to cover before this satisfactory state of affairs comes to pass.

The Delaneys – Frederick and Meg, and grown children Stephen and Kitty – are the financially struggling owners of one of the last houses in their corner of London’s Mayfair – Shepherd Market – which has not been pulled down and built over or converted into modern flats. The house has been in the family two hundred and fifty years; this year, 1934, looks very much like it will see the Delaneys rousted from residence at last.

A precarious existence is made possible by the renting of rooms to a number of similarly situated people – the random waifs and strays, the elderly and the dispossessed of the former upper classes who are now very much down on their luck. A pair of the Delaney tenants, Dodie and ‘Smoke’ Pullet, have exhausted every financial avenue, and are preparing to give notice. Smoke mulls over his bleak future possibilities with Fred, including that of the ultimate escape – suicide.

‘You’ve no idea, old boy, of the kind of life that Dodie and I’ve been leading in the last year. We’ve cadged deliberately on everybody we know. We’ve angled for meals, been everywhere and anywhere with the chance of getting something for nothing. We’ve spent days and nights with the most awful people to be safe for food and drink. It can’t go on for ever…

…Unless something happened Smoke would do just as he said. And perhaps it would be the best thing for him. That was the real problem at the heart of the trouble. There was no place in this present world for the Smoke Pullets unless there was a World War again–then they would be admirable.

Before 1914 they had played a very necessary part; they were a real need in English life and had been so for centuries. They had been the Squire and the Squire’s son; some property, possibly a seat in Parliament, beneficent, tyrannical, understanding in their country community, conforming, traditional, safe and sound. So it had been since the Wars of the Roses; from Agincourt 1415, say, until Serajevo 1914. And now, within the space of twenty years, they had become only a burden, and a wearisome burden at that. There was no future of any kind for Smoke and he without a leg which he had lost in the service of his country. Probably a nice gas-oven would be the best thing.

But Fred Delaney can’t stay grim for long. Along with the pervasive background atmosphere of despair there are plenty of opportunities for love and laughter. He and Meg have long enjoyed what might be termed an “open” marriage, though Meg has not taken advantage of her freedom as her spouse most definitely has. The two deeply and truly love each other, but Fred has indulged his physical desires for other women regularly through the years. Meg knows this, and has made her peace with it, and now at long last is in her turn preparing to indulge in a little fling with an old flame from her youth who has re-entered her life, and who has confessed a lifelong infatuation with Meg, despite his own married state.

Fred is currently pursuing a beautiful though frigid socialite; Kitty makes the acquaintance of a young man clerking in an antique shop; Stephen falls in love with the sixteen-year-old daughter of a dissipated gambler. 1934 promises to be an emotionally charged year in the tight-knit Delaney family enclave, even before their house woes escalate, which they soon do.

Hugh Walpole skilfully weaves together these story strands and half a dozen others into this increasingly absorbing saga. His characters step off the page in living, breathing colour; his descriptions are better than photographs, including as they do sounds and smells and tastes and emotions as well as vivid visual descriptions; he skilfully plays on our feelings by including us as benign fellow voyeurs sharing a god’s-eye view of his fantastical world.

Why has Walpole fallen out of favour? (Or has he? I don’t hear his name much, or see his works in the second-hand book shops.)

I’ve only read a few other things by him, a book I’ve owned for some time, which I’ve just re-read, and which I’m intending to review in the next day or two, Hans Frost, plus a book of short stories which I can’t recall seeing around recently (must be packed away) called A Head in Green Bronze. Hugh Walpole wrote so many more!

The Joyful Delaneys was very, very good. Amusing, thought-provoking, wonderfully evocative of the time and place. I was completely absorbed in the story, much to my surprise. I quite literally growled at any interruption of my rare reading times these past two days, and even sent the teens off to town in my precious car last night, with movie, snack and gas money liberally provided, so I could have a few hours of peace and quiet to finish the book off, even though I had to put aside some “real” work to do so.

Anybody who will name a fictional dachshund “Endless” has my full approval. Hugh Walpole definitely goes onto the 2013 look-for list.

One last note: the dustjacket image above is not from my own copy. Mine is a faded, stained and threadbare, green cloth-bound volume. I couldn’t bring myself to scan it – it’s too terribly tired.

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