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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.” 

The correspondence between George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis began in 1955, when at a dinner meeting Lyttelton complained that no one wrote to him in his retirement in Suffolk. Hart-Davis, as he remarks, “took up the challenge,” and the two men exchanged weekly letters over the next seven years. At the beginning of their correspondence, Hart-Davis, long engaged in a notably active career in publishing, was forty-nine, Lyttelton seventy-three. The two men had much in common: an enthusiasm for cricket, a love of fine food, a taste for the comic found in the ever-fertile field of human pretensions, above all a passion for books. Their letters, edited by Hart-Davis after the death of Lyttelton, in six handsome volumes published by John Murray, only one running to slightly more than two hundred pages, give great pleasure along with a strong sense of nostalgia for a world not likely to return. 

When his correspondence with Lyttelton began, Hart-Davis had long been at the center of English literary life. He ran a publishing firm under his own imprint, and published among others C. Day Lewis, Robert Graves, Gerald Durrell, and Robert Frost. He was literary executor for Horace Walpole (of whom he had written a biography), Duff Cooper (his uncle), and others. His first wife—in a marriage that lasted only a few years—was the actress Peggy Ashcroft. Alongside his publishing work, he read two detective novels a week, reviewing them in the magazine Time and Tide. Early in this correspondence, he writes to Lyttelton: “You are the diary I have never kept, the excuse I have so waited for forming words on paper unconnected with duty or business.” Lyttelton wrote to Hart-Davis that his letters “are exactly like good talk—which is really to say all that need be said.”

In an early letter Lyttelton describes himself as “on the shelf.” Among his students at Eton, where he taught classics but also what appears to have been an immensely impressive optional course in English literature, were Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, J. B. S. Haldane,  John Bayley, and Alan Pryce-Jones. In retirement Lyttelton continued to read examination papers by students in England and Australia attempting to qualify for university. A man of wide curiosity, he sometimes sauntered off to local law courts to pass the time of day. Somewhat old-fashioned in his tastes, in this correspondence he knowingly played the curmudgeon. “I am, as you have surmised,” he writes to Hart-Davis, “often in a rage—with God, the weather, politicians, and pundits of all sorts, the Press, the T.U.C., in short, to put it Wordsworthily, with “what man has made of man . . .”

Neither Hart-Davis nor George Lyttelton was much interested in politics. The former had dropped out “since the disappearance of Winston”; the latter shared this view, holding that Anthony Eden “struck a very thin chord after the melodious sayings of the old bulldog.” Neither man was notably religious. Calling himself “an old-fashioned Agnostic,” Hart-Davis adds, “don’t think that I wouldn’t like to believe: of course I would, and of course I realize that the lack of belief is at the bottom of most of our troubles today.” Lyttelton does not disagree, writing: “And ‘believe’ is much too big a word to use about life after death. I vaguely feel, I occasionally hope, but that is all.” Lyttelton also had a strong sense of the immensity of the cosmos, and after claiming that in the grandeur of the universe “the Creator really did make things too difficult,” he allows that he agrees with Bishop Creighton that it is “almost impossible to exaggerate the complete unimportance of everything.”

Both men were long married. When their correspondence began, Lyttelton was at the grandfather stage of life; Hart-Davis had young children, and still faced their expensive school fees, complaining more than once about his perilous financial condition. Lyttelton seems to have been at the lower end of the rentier class, living comfortably if not grandly off investments. Perhaps the one shock that the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters provides occurs in the fourth volume, when Hart-Davis apprises Lyttelton of the true state of his marriage. This, his second marriage, it turns out, departed the boudoir after the birth of his and his wife’s third and last child. His wife, rather inappropriately named Comfort, he describes as “one of the (I suspect) many women whose sex instincts are in fact wholly directed to the production of children, and when their quiver is full they want no more (as they say in the courts) intercourse.” He claims to have borne this for four years, remaining chaste all the while, averring that sex to him “is indissolubly linked with love.” Then he met Ruth Simon, who was to become his editorial assistant in 1946. They became companions and lovers and would remain so until her death in 1967. Comfort, the mother of his children, was aware of this arrangement and seemed not to mind, so Hart-Davis in effect lived in two households.

The rhythm of this correspondence is Hart-Davis reporting on his rather active business and social life, and George Lyttelton commenting on it, and then Hart-Davis commenting on Lyttelton’s comments. Because Hart-Davis’s days were crowded with lively personalities, and Lyttelton’s was a vivacious mind, their exchanges rarely falter. This is not to say that the correspondence is without its longueurs. The two chief ones are those paragraphs devoted to cricket and those from Hart-Davis about his seemingly endless work on an edition of Oscar Wilde’s letters. As for the cricket paragraphs, Hart-Davis cut these down for publication after the first volume of the correspondence appeared, a wise decision, for cricket is as inscrutable to Americans as baseball seems to be to the English. Then there are the numerous items about Hart-Davis’s children, and few things are so dull as talk of one’s own children, especially, as in this case, if they are successful in school and beyond. 

As the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters make plain, Rupert Hart-Davis was a man who found it difficult to form his lips around the word “no.” He reports often accepting invitations to speak at schools, clubs, the meetings of literary organizations. A good-cause man, at one point he sets out to save the London Library through collecting and selling manuscripts. Friends, even acquaintances, stay at his less than capacious apartment in Soho Square, located above his publishing company, for weeks, even months at a time. The poet and critic Edmund Blunden, before going off to live in Hong Kong, deposited a library of roughly seven thousand of his books in Hart-Davis’s apartment.

The views of the two men on the passing scene are always amusing. Lyttelton is pleased not to play golf, and notes that “one odd effect of that pursuit is that [people who play it] return manifestly stupider than they were. It is, I think, the company of other golfers.” Hart-Davis departs Waiting for Godot at intermission, a play he finds “the ugliest, dullest, most meaningless twaddle I’ve ever had to endure.” Lyttelton, after listening to Pablo Casals, notes that “the cello is a lovely thing—the Rembrandt of the orchestra, don’t you think.” Hart-Davis reports that “one of my few rules is never to refuse the offer of a bookcase.” Lyttelton asks Hart-Davis if he has “any ‘foolmeters’—people whose advice you ask, knowing that exactly the opposite to it will be the right course.” Hart-Davis, claiming to be bored by Haydn’s symphonies, justifies this antipathy by quoting Sarah Bernhardt on the Ten Commandments: “Zey are too many.” They tell each other jokes: What did the Leaning Tower of Pisa say to Big Ben: “I have the inclination if you have the time.”

At the center of these letters is the exchange between two men who have devoted their lives to literature: one to teaching it, the other to seeking it out and publishing it. While both men wrote well, each found his greatest pleasure in reading and rereading. Hart-Davis sent Lyttelton most of the roughly fifty new books his firm published annually. At one point Hart-Davis mentions that he is currently reading, “alternately Harold Nicolson’s Journey to Java (delightful), Gordon Craig’s excellent memoirs which I never finished, Priestly’s Thoughts in the Wilderness, the newly published original version of The Importance of Being Earnest, a detective story, the new Isak Dinesen, and Tony Powell’s latest—enjoying them all and then switching.”

Most of the books both men read and comment on, past and present, are English. “Last night I began Dr. Zhivago,”Lyttelton writes, “but rather doubt I shall persevere. I am not good at the Russians—‘fluid puddings’ as Henry James called their great novels.” Hart-Davis concurs: “I have never attempted Dr. Zhivago, and doubt whether I ever shall—so there!” At his own firm Hart-Davis published no works of translation, apart from those from French. This might seem a less than attractive parochialism, but contemporary English literature in that day was rich enough to occupy even voracious readers full time.

The literary opinions of Lyttelton and Hart-Davis are pleasingly far from conventional. Lyttelton greatly disliked F. R. Leavis, and D. H. Lawrence quite as much. He thought Jane Austen overrated and writes of George Bernard Shaw, “What great stuff he would have written if he had had a bigger heart.” Of Coleridge he writes: “He always seems to me one of those who astonish by the point and splendor of their obiter dicta and disappoint when one reads further—the plums are toothsome, the rest of the bun so heavy.” Both deplore the New English Bible. Lyttelton finds Emerson better to quote than to read. Hart-Davis often agrees with these opinions, and when he dissents it is never in a querulous way.

Both men are in agreement about Shakespeare’s plots being hopeless. “The Tempest is a boring play,” writes Hart-Davis; Lyttelton thinks “greater drivel than The Merchant of Venice has never been written.” They concur that it is the power and poetry of Shakespeare’s language that carries the day for him. “The point I have arrived at,” Lyttelton writes, “combines the convictions that W. S. of Stratford couldn’t have written the plays, and that no one else could have.”

Neither is fond of Somerset Maugham, either as man or writer. Both show unstinting admiration for Max Beerbohm. They share the view that Thomas Carlyle is sadly underrated, and Lyttelton predicts, wrongly, a revival of interest in his writing fifty years from then. Lyttelton is also high on P. G. Woodhouse: “Did any popular author ever remain more constantly at his best?” Hart-Davis refers to “the layers of pretentious candy-floss” that constitute the prose of Walter Pater. Lyttelton can bear Lytton Strachey only when he isn’t mocking his subjects. Hart-Davis fears that dullness “is the epithet that fits all Gissing’s work.” Lyttelton refers to the novels of Iris Murdoch, “whose brow is practically out of sight in the empyrean.”

Both correspondents agree that T. S. Eliot, with whom Hart-Davis has many dealings, is an excellent companion. “I had a good chuckle with T.S.E.,” Lyttelton reports, “A very good man, I thought, with no affectations, etc.” Hart-Davis replies that Eliot is “so affectionate, simple and modest, and in his private sense of humor fine.” Lyttelton claims he cannot appreciate Eliot’s poetry, being a man whose “tastes were formed before 1914, one is bound to be, as regards modern writing, in a fine chaotic bewilderment in 1958.” For all the attacks on T.S. Eliot for the anti-Semitic touches in his poems, I know of no one who knew him, including Jews, who did not find him personally considerate, kindly, winning.

The one occasion on which the correspondents disagree—and here the disagreement is neither complete nor belligerent—is over the 1960 obscenity trial of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Lyttelton’s loathing for its author could not have been more complete; he describes the roads near his home as “dry as a D. H. Lawrence novel.” Hart-Davis was asked to serve among the expert witnesses for the book at its trial, though he was not finally required to give testimony on its behalf. He did, however, feel called upon as a publisher to help demolish a “tabu that has long been cherished.” When the book in its unexpurgated version is acquitted of obscenity, Lyttelton notes the cynicism of its publisher, who will now be able “to publish a further three-hundred thousand copies—making half a million. What an unsuspected love of culture the public are showing!” Hart-Davis advises him not to “be depressed about Lady C.” Hart-Davis, meanwhile, was for censoring Lolita, whose “value was negligible, and its pornographic level high.” My own view is that Lolita is perhaps the most overrated novel of the past century and that Lady Chatterly’s Lover deserved to have been censored not for its obscenity but for its dullness. 

The pages of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters are, as the English used to say, very namey. Many of the names, so glittering in their day, are now, alas, fading if not fully faded. They include Peter Quenell, G. M. Young, R. H. S. Crossman, A. J. P. Taylor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Bernard Levin, J. P. Priestly, Siegfried Sassoon, Kenneth Tynan, Alistair Cooke, Noel Anan, the three Johns Sparrow, Wain, Maynard Keynes, and many others. They are also full of amusing throwaway thoughts. Hart-Davis writes that “the greatest womanizers have always been ugly,” to which Lyttelton replies: “Yes, Casanova, John Wilkes, H. G. Wells—all ugly men.” Lyttelton asks, “Why must our geniuses be so patently and infuriatingly asinine?” Hart-Davis reports that King George V went to the opera once a year, and that his favorite opera was La Boheme, “because,” according to the King, “it’s much the shortest.” Lyttelton thinks that “there is a big book to be written about sh-ts, there being such an infinite variety.” Hart-Davis suggests that “Frank Harris and Lord Alfred Douglas would be high up on the list.”

At one point in this correspondence Lyttelton remarks, wistfully, on “the perishability of teaching.” At another Hart-Davis tells Lyttelton that in these letters he functions as his “conscience.” The note neither of condescension nor of diffidence is ever struck in this correspondence, but from time to time one recalls that these are the letters between a teacher and his former student, and thinks how fortunate each was to find the other and then to rekindle their relationship on fully equal terms decades later. One recalls it only at those rare moments in these letters when one is not instructed, fascinated, charmed by these two men, and realizes how fortunate, too, are we who have been allowed to share in their splendid correspondence.

Joseph Epstein is the author of Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits and numerous other books.

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