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Issue 08 – Christmas 2021


George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis

On letters from two old friends.


In 1962, toward the close of their seven-year weekly exchange of letters, Rupert Hart-Davis writes to his former Eton master George Lyttelton: “The gradual but complete social revolution which we have lived through has undoubtedly improved the lot of millions, but it has largely destroyed elegance and la douceur de vivre.” Lyttelton died that same year, 1962, at the age of seventy-nine; Hart-Davis lived on until 1999, dying at ninety-two. Both lived through and contributed to the aristocratic tone of English intellectual life that bred many Anglophiles outside England, myself among them. What I, in my late adolescence and early twenties, so admired was the casual elegance of learning, wit, and charming conversation that seemed to mark English intellectual life. The once lilting English accent seemed perfectly mated to the characteristic understatement and sly humor of the English intellectual. That life is now all but gone, and England has since become the country of those knights of woeful countenance, Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Elton John, and, alas, much the worse for it.

By the 1950s the British Empire was well on its way to dissolution, but many of those who knew it at its pinnacle were still alive. Their empire gave the English confidence, and to go with it experience available nowhere else.  In 1922 George Orwell at the age of nineteen went off to serve in the Burmese police force, where he was responsible for the well-being of thousands. The English public schools of Eton, Winchester, and Harrow were superior institutions grounded in classics, with Oxford or Cambridge awaiting after sixth form. “We have the nonsense knocked out of us at public school,” wrote Max Beerbohm, “and then we go to a university to have it all gently put back again.” 

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Joseph Epstein

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