The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

June 1, 2017

June 1, 1941

The writing of Hugh Walpole (March 13, 1884 to June 1,1941) needs an introduction and
I rely  here on Michael Dirda's summary of Walpole's place in literary history:

.... During his lifetime Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) stood high among the most popular writers in the English-speaking world and was particularly esteemed for his generational saga, “The Herries Chronicles.”From the start his books were greatly admired, so much so that the fledgling author was taken under the wing of no less than the master himself, Henry James. Gregarious and immensely likeable, Walpole eventually counted Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett and, a bit later, Bennett’s sometime critic Virginia Woolf among his good friends. During several lecture tours of the United States, he regularly drew the kind of crowds that, in an earlier generation, had come to hear Charles Dickens.

Nowadays, though, Walpole’s fiction gluts the shelves of used bookshops, and he is largely remembered — if at all — for three reasons, each of which would have surprised him. In his lifetime, he provided the model for the social-climbing Alroy Kear, who is mercilessly satirized in Somerset Maugham’s witty masterpiece “Cakes and Ale.” Then after his death, he became the subject of Rupert Hart-Davis’s exceptionally entertaining “Hugh Walpole,” subtitled in one reprint: “a remarkable portrait of a man, an epoch and a society.” From it we learn that Walpole worked for the British propaganda office in Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution and that in 1925, at Bayreuth — where he’d gone to hear his former protege Lauritz Melchior sing in “Parsifal” — he shared a box with a weeping, rather down-at-heels Wagnerite named Adolf Hitler: They met several times and even dined together. Having just now reread Hart-Davis’s book after many years, I still rank it among the best literary biographies of the 20th century.

But what is the third reason that Walpole is remembered, at least by some? Quite simply, he produced a small handful of superior psychological shockers and ghostly tales. As John Howard notes in his introduction to the Valancourt reissue of
All Souls’ Night, Walpole was a master of mood, uncanny atmosphere and the quietly chilling vignette. His stories are carried along, too, by an exceptionally easygoing and seductive narrative voice, what the costive Henry James described as his acolyte’s enviable “flow.”....

First published in 1933,
All Souls’ Night collects most, but not all, of Walpole’s supernatural short fiction. It opens with “The Whistle,” a wonderful tear-jerker about a servant and his mystical bond with a powerful dog, proceeds to “The Silver Mask,” in which middle-aged Sonia Herries finds her settled life overturned by a devilishly handsome but insidious young man (who is more than a little reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s talented Mr. Ripley), and then follows that conte cruel with the much-anthologized shape-shifter story “Tarnhelm” and two ghostly tales about wives who come back from the dead: “Mrs. Lunt” and “The Snow.” All these are excellent and “The Silver Mask” an absolute masterpiece, so eerily inexorable in its development that it should be as famous as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Many of Walpole’s stories do feel distinctly autobiographical. The protagonist or narrator is often an author, sometimes he is looking for an “ideal friend” — Walpole himself was gay — and sometimes the plot reflects the jealousies and psychological complexities attendant on the literary life. Walpole was obviously obsessed with the price of success. “Mrs. Lunt” starts this way:

“ ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ I asked Runciman. I had to ask him this very platitudinous question more because he was so difficult a man to spend an hour with than for any other reason. You know his books, perhaps, or more probably you don’t know them — ‘The Running Man,’ ‘The Elm Tree,’ and ‘Crystal and Candlelight.’ . . . Such men do fine work, are made but little of in their own day, and perhaps fifty years after their death are rediscovered by some digging critic and become a sort of cult with a new generation.”...

That hinted-at anxiety about literary merit grows even more overt in “The Tarn,” included in “Tarnhelm: The Best Supernatural Stories of Hugh Walpole”(from Britain’s Tartarus Press). Two writers have known each other since their youth, but while one, Foster, has become a celebrated writer, the other, Fenwick, has fallen into obscurity. Walpole tells the story from Fenwick’s point of view, probing a hatred that has festered over many decades, ever since Foster’s novel “The Circus” stole the glory that should have gone, in Fenwick’s opinion, to his own overlooked masterpiece, “The Bitter Aloe.” But at last, here in the lonely Lake District, retribution is at hand. Some bonds, however, prove indissoluble.

While Walpole is hardly in the Dickens class, his tales are always smoothly, reliably enjoyable. That’s not meant to sound like faint praise. Start reading “The Little Ghost” or “Major Wilbraham,” and after just a few sentences you will find yourself relaxing into the story, as you might into an Adirondack chair.....

We have an example of Walpole's fiction, from The Cathedral: A Novel, (1922):

The Ronders had taken this house a month ago; for two months before that it had stood desolate, wisps of paper and straw blowing about it, its "To let" notice creaking and screaming in every wind. The Hon. Mrs. Pentecoste, an eccentric old lady, had lived there for many years, and had died in the middle of a game of patience; her worn and tattered furniture had been sold at auction, and the house had remained unlet for a considerable period because people in the town said that the ghost of Mrs. Pentecoste's cat (a famous blue Persian) walked there. The Ronders cared nothing for ghosts; the house was exactly what they wanted. It had two panelled rooms, two powder-closets, and a little walled garden at the back with fruit trees.

[Mr. Ronder, now seeing the house when the remodeling is finished], came down to tea, looked about him, and saw that all was good.

"I congratulate you, Aunt Alice," he said—"excellent!".....

"There are a lot of things still to be done," she said; nevertheless she was immensely pleased.

The drawing-room was charming. The stencilled walls, the cushions of the chairs, the cover of a gate-legged table, the curtains of the mullioned windows were of a warm dark blue. And whatever in the room was not blue seemed to be white, or wood in its natural colour, or polished brass. Books ran round the room in low white book-cases. In one corner a pure white Hermes stood on a pedestal with tiny wings outspread There was only one picture, an excellent copy of "Rembrandt's mother." The windows looked out to the garden, now veiled by the dusk of evening. Tea was on a little table close to the white tiled fireplace. A little square brass clock chimed the half-hour as Ronder came in.

.....He drank in the details of the room with a quite sensual pleasure. He went over to the Hermes and lifted it, holding it for a moment in his podgy hands.
"You beauty!" he whispered aloud. He put it back,.....He picked up the books on the table—two novels, Sentimental Tommy, by J. M. Barrie, and Sir George Tressady, by Mrs. Humphry Ward, Mr. Swinburne's Tale of Balen, and The Works of Max Beerbohm. Last of all Leslie Stephen's Social Bights and Duties.

He looked at them all, with their light yellow Mudie labels, their fresh bindings, then, slowly and very carefully, put them back on the table.

He always handled books as though they were human beings.

He came and sat down by the fire.

"I won't see over the place until to-morrow,"
[he said to his aunt]. "What have you done about the other books?"

"The book-cases are in. It's the best room in the house. Looks over the river and gets most of the light. The books are as you packed them. I haven't dared touch them. In fact, I've left that room entirely for you to arrange."

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