This biography took forever to read. It’s dense, in the leisured style of the 1950s (reissued unrevised in the 1980s), and it is very odd to read such a long study of a life that is pretty nearly forgotten now. None of Walpole’s novels are in print now, as far as I can see, though most are available second-hand in the many editions that his publishers produced. Walpole was a novel-writing machine, revised almost nothing, and sold millions of copies of his books. He could go shopping for Epsteins and Renoirs on a whim and only have uncomfortable discussions with his accountants once a year, because he couldn’t get the hang of keeping receipts or understanding about tax. The list of his works at the back of this biography runs to 59 titles published between 1909 and 1948. Some of these may be repackaged series in one volume, but still: he was not quite at the productivity levels of John Buchan (over 100 titles between 1895 and 1941), but he was twice as fast, and three times as wordy. His earliest literary model and influence was Henry James.
This biography does not hide the annoying or regrettable aspects of Walpole’s character. Hart-Davis wa a devoted friend but not an acolyte, and he calmly notes where Walpole behaved badly, lied or made things up, or gaily published inaccurate recollections as fact. Hart-Davis was himself a literary giant on the editorial and networking side, and a notable publisher in his own right, so he knew the English literary world and its inhabitants well. He was thus the right person to write Walpole’s life, because Walpole seems to have existed only in literary and musical milieux. The name-dropping is phenomenal, but there are many appealing instances quoted where Walpole – never one to shy away from self-criticism or self-deprecation – banters, bickers or bitches with and about the great. He was friends with most of the male literary names of the period, and with one or two of the big female names as well: Elizabeth von Arnim, later Elizabeth Russell, was one of his first employers, a tormenter and a goader of his pretensions, but he never stopped loving her. He was close friends with Virginia Woolf, and Clemence Dane. Possibly he was great friends with many people who weren’t famous or writers, but Hart-Davis is less interested in writing about these relationships.
Walpole’s social activity is the backbone of the book. Walpole’s literary production is written about as if the reader is already a fan of his fiction (why else would you be reading the book?), or curious about his world (me), so the novels are not summarised or discussed in terms that require you to have read them. Hart-Davis is writing a life, and the novels are the work that paid for it. So having accepted that Walpole worked very hard producing his product to sell, and he was naturally very good at making what the public wanted to buy, his novels are irrelevant in themselves: they could as well be carpets or cars.
Given the period when Hart-Davis published this biography, there is a necessary layer of coded references to obscure the blatant fact that Walpole was a gay man. Walpole had an intense need to be loved by everyone, stemming from a dreadful public school experience and his mother’s temperament, making his emotional life a search for love and protection, and, as later hints creep out, sex. Hart-Davis is careful to discuss the women Walpole proposed to and their reasons for refusing him, and calmly talks about Walpole’s male relationships in terms of friendship only. An intriguing number of Walpole’s frends were gay, active in the arts, and / or young and attractive. Walpole spent his life searching for the ‘perfect friend’, which we can decode as ‘the perfect male lover, assistant, housekeeper, chaffeur, and protector, married or not’. He found bisexual or closeted married men with complaisant wives to serve his needs again and again: he was very fortunate in this, and was clearly a lovable man who inspired devotion.
Reading the biography has made me vaguely interested in reading more of his work (I’ve already read Fortitude), and more understanding of the kind of man Walpole was. He had his demons and nightmares, and if he had temper tantrums and was a little egotistical, he was also generous and loving and utterly loyal to his family and friends. He was a compulsive shopper in art dealers’ salons, and had excellent taste, though once the art was bought, it was stacked against walls for years until he sold that house or flat and moved on. He left important works to many British galleries and institutions, and was an extraordinarily generous public benefactor in his donations. He described himself proudly as a professional novelist, and he was also an accomplished journalist of the non-investigative kind. He worked for the Red Cross on the Russian Front during the First World War, then was attached to the British Embassy and wrote the official British reports of the early days of the Russian Revolution. He was invited again and again to write for Hollywood, and made numerous lucrative lecture tours in the USA. He was paid thousands of pounds by US newspapers to write an account of George VI’s coronation.
He was a production machine, and one of the literary giants of his day, outselling all his peers. But are his works read or taught now? Their length disbars them, and his style and subjects are well out of fashion. His regional fiction of Cornwall and Cumberland is the likeliest to survive, and his early London fiction supplies the wallpaper against which the ferment of Edwardian and Georgian literary life was conducted, albeit through a gaze that did not think much of women.