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Archive for the ‘George Lyttelton’ Category

Last week I dipped in and out of volume two of The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, which covers the correspondence between George Lyttelton, a retired Eton master, and Rupert Hart-Davis, a publisher and former student of Lyttelton’s, between 1956 and 1957.  I read the first volume in 2018 and enjoyed the literary chat very much but was exhausted by endless cricket talk.  Thankfully, Hart-Davis edited the letters more strictly after the first volume and the result is far better for his ruthlessness.

Lyttelton, retired and living in the countryside, was endlessly entertained by Hart-Davis’ stories of his busy and extraordinarily well-connected London life.  (Though both men were extremely well-connected – Lyttelton is very proud of a nephew who has just been named Governor General of New Zealand and Hart-Davis, a descendent of William IV, spans the aristocratic, literary, and theatrical worlds.)  But it is Lyttelton’s musings that are the most endearing and revealing and which make the letters worth reading, at least in this volume.  Dry thoughts are useless – I want people with opinions and Lyttelton has no shortage of these, along with excellent quotations.  He is not afraid to trumpet his dislike of D.H. Lawrence or George Orwell or to muse about what on earth publishers are thinking to promote certain books.  And, being old and wise, he knows exactly what is needed as a palate cleanser after crossing paths with such books:

As an antidote I read in bed Trollope’s Prime Minister – about 940 pages – with great satisfaction for the best of all reasons.  You want to know what is going to happen.  Full of faulty art and psychology and all that, no doubt, but immensely readable – and what else matters? (GL, 26 September 1957)

We also hear far more of his private life and it is these domestic details that make him so endearing:

You must try a spell in bed; it is tremendously restful, and you could, like Winston (and many others), get through a lot of dictating to secretaries, etc. And if your bed is well organised qua bed-rest, ‘donkey’ (i.e. bolster tied across bed just below the b-tt-cks), and the service of meals is cheerful, punctual and lavish, life soon takes on a paradisal, Nepenthean, lotus-eating atmosphere which is deliciously demoralising. (GL, 24 October 1956)

Or when his grandchildren have left after a long stay:

I love them twittering and hopping and scampering and rolling about the place, daily missing homicide or suicide by a hair’s-breadth, but there is a certain compensatory relief in finding the soap in its dish and not in the bath, and the ink in its pot and not on my cushion. (GL, 25 April 1957)

But it is Hart-Davis who, in a book full of the gently competitive trading of quotations, shared my favourite passage.  He passed on a letter from Sydney Smith, the 18th and 19th Century clergyman who shows up everywhere (most enjoyably in The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory), written in 1820 and full of excellent advice that deserves to be remembered through the ages by those who are struggling:

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you.

1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

This was a perfect book to read a letter or two at a time.  I’m not sure I could handle sustained exposure to either correspondent but in small doses they are a pleasure.

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I’ve lost track of the number of times I have seen The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters recommended.  If you enjoy literary correspondence, it is invariably on your to-read list.  So, after being reminded of it once again in Browsings by Michael Dirda, I picked up volume one (published in 1978) to make the acquaintance of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis.

In the autumn of 1955, Hart-Davis, a publisher and editor, met his old Eton schoolmaster Lyttleton at a dinner party.  When Lyttelton, retired and in his early 70s, complained no one wrote to him anymore Hart-Davis took up the challenge.  Their correspondence continued until Lyttleton’s death in the early 1960s and filled six volumes (edited and published by Hart-Davis, naturally).  While they discuss their families and other interests (cricket.  So, so much cricket), the focus of their letters is literature which suits me perfectly.

The letters in this first volume are from 1955 and 1956 but little modern literature is discussed.  Both men had middlebrow and rather sentimental tastes: Hart-Davis was Hugh Walpole’s literary executor and biographer, there is much praise of Kipling, and the contemporary distaste for Galsworthy is lamented, particularly by Lyttelton:

Is Angus Wilson a good man?  I see he reduces The Forsyte Saga to dust and ashes in last week’s New Statesman.  How jealous they all were, and still are, of Galsworthy’s immense vogue.  And the line they take is always so lofty that they miss the main point – that so many of his characters do strike the ordinary reader as being live men and women, and one reads on wanting to know how they got out of their difficulties, and usually satisfied with the way they do it, and with G’s comments, and elucidations, and undertones throughout.  And I’ll eat my hat if “Indian Summer of a Forsyte” is not a beautiful and moving bit of writing.  But what frightful contempt our highbrow critics pour on that view.  (8 March 1956)

Through his publishing work, Hart-Davis was well-connected to the literary world while Lyttelton remained resolutely outside but deeply fascinated by it.  He often asked Hart-Davis’ opinions of certain literary figures, like the question above about Angus Wilson or his query after A.A. Milne’s death.  The correspondence must have been an exciting addition to his relatively quiet life.  However, Hart-Davis tried to make it clear from the earliest letters that he too had something to gain from the letter-based friendship with a man he said had the gifts of “a mixture of psychiatrist and father-confessor”:

Don’t think for a moment that this delightful correspondence is solely for your benefit: it is pure self-indulgence.  You are the diary I have never kept, the excuse I have so long wanted for forming words on paper unconnected with duty or business. (6 November 1955)

They are at their best when discussing certain books or just describing their love of books.  Lyttelton was particularly delighted whenever Hart-Davis sent him parcels of well-selected books from London – one of the definite benefits of having a friend in publishing:

The breakfast table this morning had that best of all objects – far better even than a dish of salmon kedgeree, or a headline in The Times saying the atom bomb had been abolished, or that the price of coal was down – viz a fat little parcel of books.  And the content of those books!  Exactly the sort of literature I love – comments wide and deep on men and things and books by a wise man who knows how to write.  Life has, at all events at 73, no greater pleasure than that.  (9 May 1956)

And it is up to Lyttelton, as the elder, to provide his opinions on the foolishness of youth.  He complains about a young writer’s idiotic but absolute confidence (“Why has he not learnt that a little real humility sharpens the perceptions wonderfully and has other good effects too.  What a strong tendency there is today to lay down the law about what one may or must, and may not and must not, admire.”)  and chastises those who don’t know how to properly spend their holidays:

It is all to the good that you are having a good laze.  Curiously few people are sensible about holidays; if not walking, they go sightseeing and to picture-gallery after p.g. of all fatiguing activities.  Many play golf, and the odd effect of that pursuit is that they return to work manifestly stupider than they were.  (18 May 1956)

Hart-Davis remains a little less opinionated and a little less interesting because of it.  He seems to have had a fascinating family life, though it is not discussed deeply.  His adored mother had died when he was young (he later wrote a book about her), his uncle was Duff Cooper (he goes to visit the widowed Diana Cooper in France and meets a predictably cosmopolitan array of visitors at her home), and he took holidays with his long-time companion (whom he later married) while he and his wife remained on good terms and stayed married until the children grew up.

In the end, it’s not a spectacular correspondence.  Neither man was a brilliant writer and neither offered much of themselves in their letters.  And there is too much talk of cricket (any cricket is too much).  But it remains mildly interesting and I could see myself picking up the next volume.

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I need a pipe to recover from this…

There I was, happily reading The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters (between former schoolmaster George Lyttelton and publisher Rupert Hart-Davis) and enjoying all the literary gossip when suddenly my favourite of all names popped up: A.A. Milne.  It was 1 February 1956 and Milne had died the day before.  Lyttelton, remembering Milne vaguely from their overlapping years at Cambridge, wondered if his younger publishing friend has ever encountered Milne – as he seemed to encounter everyone else – while sharing his own memories of the author:

Did you know A.A. Milne?  I met him twice at Cambridge half-a-century ago, but cannot remember his saying anything at all; he was extremely shy.  I liked his Punch things, though of course the lighthearted “Rabbits” belong to a long dead world, and all our John Wains and Amises would bury them deep in the lumber-room whose door bears the fatal damnation “Escapist”.

If you weren’t around during 2012, you may not know of my love for the Rabbits, a group of young people whose adventures Milne chronicled over the years as they caroused, married, and reproduced.  It is a deep and abiding love and if I ever go into publishing the first thing I will do is bring out a single volume collection of all the Rabbit stories. (Or, if you are in publishing already, feel free to steal this idea and save me a great deal of effort and expense.)  This is how much I love them.  Understandably, I was feeling quite well disposed towards Lyttelton after that (he being decidedly against the John Wains and Amises of the world, though that might not be clear in the above) and the book in general.

But then Hart-Davis replied:

I can’t say I knew A.A. Milne, though I met him sometimes at the house of his father-in-law, Martin de Selincourt, and saw him quite a lot at the Garrick.  Not a likeable man, I should say.  On top of great natural shyness he cultivated a deep grudge – against life, I suppose, though I can’t imagine why.  The combination rendered him pretty well unapproachable…

Gone was my trust in Hart-Davis.  To have found Milne unlikeable – particularly in later life when he was haunted by the success of his children’s books – was common enough but I had hoped Hart-Davis was more discerning than that.  From there on I read with narrowed eyes, skeptical of his every judgement.

Apparently, I can be a little over sensitive when it comes to my literary heroes!

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