Just back from a trip over to Watendlath, the tiny hamlet beside a tarn hidden in a small side-valley above Borrowdale. I was asked to go there to record an interview with the writer and broadcaster Eric Robson, who is making a programme for BBC Radio 4 about the novelist Hugh Walpole. (The programme goes out on 5 May, at 11.30 – a.m., by the way!)
It was lovely to revisit Watendlath – one of my favourite places, with its old stone buildings, little packhorse bridge and tranquil tarn under the mass of the fells – especially outside the tourist season, when the place was practically empty and the loudest sound was the flock of insistent chaffinches hustling me for sandwich crumbs. But sadly I didn’t go for a long walk because it was simply too wet and the visibility was too restricted. Next time, I hope!
Eric and I talked under the overhanging roof of a barn, to keep ourselves and the microphone out of the rain. (The producer, Barney Rowntree from production company Somethin’ Else, wasn’t so lucky: he stood outside, holding said mic!) Walpole was an immensely popular writer in the late 1920s and the 1930s, but has been neglected since his death and is mainly remembered now for his sequence of novels about the Herries family, set in Cumberland.
The Herries Chronicle is unevenly written, and while Walpole writes excellently about the landscape, he doesn’t always show much understanding of real Cumbrian concerns like farming. But the books are well worth reading for their drama, their incredible visual imagination, their narrative drive, and notably for Walpole’s amazing imagination for the grotesque and terrifying. He’s a superb Gothic writer: death, withcraft, hallucinations, madness, violence and terror bring out the very best in him and he deserves to be rediscovered for that alone.
I summed up my mixed feelings about Walpole, and tried to suggest why he’s still worth reading, in a review for the TLS three or four years ago. I’ll put it in here for anyone who’s interested. And here’s a link to details about the programme: don’t forget to come back here after you’ve checked it out – there’s more to read!
Rogue Herries 736 pp. 978-0-7112-2889-4
Judith Paris 757 pp. 978-0-7112-2890-0
The Fortress 811pp. 9-780-7112-2891-7
Vanessa 852 pp. 9-780-7112-2892-4
Introductions by Eric Robson. £7.99 each. Frances Lincoln.
‘I’m now pinning all my hopes on two or three Lakeland novels, which will at least do something for this adorable place,’ wrote Hugh Walpole in August 1925, two years after establishing himself in a house on the fellside slopes of Catbells, six miles from Keswick. ‘I feel a longing desire to pay it back for some of its goodness to me.’ Later he added, more tensely, ‘These four books shall clinch my reputation or I’ll die in the attempt’.
The journal-entries, with their mixture of naive enthusiasm, sentimentality (as if Cumberland somehow needed his writing) and naked careerism, are quintessential Walpole. They were also prophetic: Walpole’s reputation, such as it is, rests on the Herries novels, which have remained sporadically in print and dimly in the public consciousness long after his fifty-odd other books have vanished without trace. Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1884, Hugh Walpole was the son of an Anglican clergyman whose career took him to England, America and Scotland. Hugh was sent to English boarding schools, where his poor sight made him a target for bullying and he sought popularity by developing a talent for story-telling after lights-out in the dormitory. A ‘third’ in History at Cambridge and a miserable six months at the Seamen’s Mission in Liverpool (he was expected to follow his father into the church) made it clear that, once again, story-telling was the solution, and Hugh entered literary London.
His first novel, The Wooden Horse, appeared in 1909 and thereafter Hugh pursued his career by combining massive productivity with a facility for forming friendships with the great and influential. ‘I simply worshipped men of letters and went for them direct as a kitten goes to a saucer of milk,’ he guilelessly confessed later. His enthusiasm and longing to be liked worked wonders. Though no two writers could have been more different, he became the intimate friend – almost the adopted son – of Henry James, who instructed him to begin his letters ‘Très-chère Maitre’, and cushioned devastating criticism of Walpole’s writing (‘It isn’t written at all, darling Hugh – by which I mean you have…never got expression tight and in close quarters (of discrimination, of specification) with its subject’) with affection so intense that the disciple was never offended.
Gradually the writing became more competent, the reviews better, the friendships more numerous, until by the mid-1920s Walpole could boast allies on all sides. Treated as an equal by Bennett, Wells, Buchan and Galsworthy, he was also a close friend of Virgina Woolf (though she found his Judith Paris as ‘unreal’ as he found The Waves). Walpole’s fiction, with its tone of nebulous seriousness, its vague philosophising, its faintly ‘daring’ subject-matter about relationships, appealed to the middle-brow reading public as weighty stuff. Bestsellerdom became routine, accompanied by American lecture-tours, an FRSL, and ultimately a knighthood. Progress was only jolted, temporarily though painfully, in 1930 by Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, which caricatured Walpole as Alroy Kear, a ruthless, manipulative careerist determined at all costs to be recognised as a great writer.
Walpole, however, needed a place in geography as well as in society. He wanted to feel English, and he wanted to feel rooted. The solution presented itself when he visited the Lakes and remembered early holidays in Cumberland, the happiest times of his childhood. He quickly bought Brackenburn, a modern stone house overlooking Derwentwater, moving in in June 1924. . Though he retained a base in London, most of his writing thereafter was done at Brackenburn.
The idea of a regional family saga was conceived at once. Derived from his reading of Hardy, Zola and (though he disliked admitting the debt) Galsworthy, it was already a slightly dated notion, but it satisfied Walpole’s characteristic impatience to use his new surroundings in fiction, as well as offering what must have seemed a reliable route to popular success and literary acclaim. Elements of self-projection are also obvious. The opening of the first novel, Rogue Herries, is clearly a fantasy version of Walpole’s own situation, the arrival of the uncouth eighteenth-century protagonist at his ruinous farmhouse in Cumberland a grotesque, gothic transformation of Walpole’s move to Brackenburn. When he later refers to his second-generation hero, David Herries, as ‘the patriarchal founder of an English family’, Walpole is making David everything he could not himself be.
The faults of the Herries novels, which were written at headlong speed between1930 and 1933, are big and obvious. There is virtually no plot: the passage of generations of farmers, merchants and landowners with their accompanying feuds, obsessions and antagonisms generate a semblance of motivation, and that suffices. Historical accuracy is flouted: Walpole lacked the patience for research, consoling himself during the writing of Rogue Herries that ‘no one knows very much about the eighteenth century really, or only a few do. I can be venturous.’ Character development is rudimentary: it was perhaps as well that the Très-chère Maitre did not live long enough to be asked for his comments on the raging squires and red-haired gypsies of Herries. Even the Cumbrian landscape is rarely engaged with. Though often well-described, it remains a backdrop, a terrain seen as by a tourist. It has no texture, no one is shown realistically working within it. Tellingly, we never encounter a sheep until the middle of the second novel, Judith Paris, and when we do it is on a shearing-day treated as a grandiose set-piece:
There were eight hundred sheep and five hundred lambs…Beyond the house in a grand half-circle were fifteen clippers striding the sheep-stools, and each clipper held a sheep, shorn, half-shorn, about to be shorn. There was a tremendous noise, for the gate of the farmyard was packed by five score of wooled sheep pressed against it…
Walpole’s many non-literary friends in Keswick could easily have shown him any aspect of Cumbrian working life, but he probably never thought to ask.
Yet it would be unfair to dismiss the Herries novels as mere swashbuckling fakery. Walpole’s true gifts are those of an oral story-teller. The marvellously enticing opening sentence of Rogue Herries (‘A little boy, David Scott Herries, lay in a huge canopied bed, half awake and half asleep’) offers an image for both author and reader. The author dreams the novel, and the reader will be allowed to share his dream. The result, at its best, is a kind of bedtime story for adults.
Walpole is a dab hand at fantasy, the horrific, the bizarre. In this realm his imagination is of splendid fertility, and he has a masterful gift for the visually grotesque, as when the boy David watches the firelit room and his father’s mistress in it:
All the things in it moved; the fire-dogs grinned and yawned; over a large arm-chair of faded red silk, oddly enough, some harness had been slung, and it lay there in coils of silver and dark brown leather, and these coils turned and stretched and slipped like snakes. Then against the wall was a long, thin mirror in tarnished silver and, in this, Alice Press was most oddly reflected, the side of her face that was shown there being very thin and red, her hair tawny-peaked like a witch’s hat; her eyebrow jumped up and down in a terrifying manner.
Witchcraft, indeed, provides a horribly convincing crowd-scene in Rogue Herries, where Mrs Wilson, a mentally-confused and infirm old woman servant from Herries’s household, tries to visit a dying friend in a nearby village and is taken for a witch.
Men and women, close together as though for protection, were gathered together at the end of the cobbled path. They stood, huddled together, not speaking, staring at her. Although she could not see well and was so deeply frightened that it was though her heart were beating in her eyes, yet certain faces were very distinct to her.
She is stripped, stoned and thrown into a river, where she dies. The episode is seen from the victim’s point of view – Walpole knew all about ‘the look of lust and hatred, curiosity and pleasure’ on the faces of a bullying mob – and is cinematic in its constant restless movement and shaky, off-balance shifts of vision. Walpole was a natural screen-writer, enjoying a successful stint in Hollywood scripting David Copperfield and Little Lord Fauntleroy for David O. Selznick, and demonstrates it repeatedly in the Herries novels, in both crowded set-pieces (feasts, fights, markets, travelling-theatre shows) and episodes of fast-moving, claustrophobic horror like the burning of Fell House in Vanessa, where Adam Paris, confused by smoke, searches on the wrong floor for his daughter’s room until the fire traps him.
Perhaps the finest scene in the tetralogy is also the grimmest. It occurs in The Fortress, where John and Uhland Herries, cousins who have cherished a lifelong loathing, make their separate ways through dense mist (Walpole is always good with mist and fog) to meet at Skiddaw House, a desolate shepherd’s bothy on the north slope of the mountain. Uhland is lame, John crippled by an obsession with his own cowardice, which he overcomes to confront Uhland. Uhland shoots John, then turns the gun on himself. Walpole heightens the scene to a painful vividness by the use of banal detail – the dusty wax fruit on the windowsill of the neglected room, the child’s drawing on the back of the crumpled scrap of paper which is all Uhland can find for his suicide note. The result is a scene that would not be unworthy of Conrad or Hardy. The final volume, Vanessa, demonstrates that Walpole is not inspired solely by the idea of historical distance. It brings the story up to the 1930s, with episodes set in the Great War and the Russian Revolution, a debate about Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and a heroine obtusely, and refreshingly, indifferent to the scenic beauty of the Lakes, who survives a freak snowstorm at the summit of Scafell while her companion dies of hypothermia – the landscape at this last moment acquiring tactile quality and becoming uncompromisingly real.
The Herries novels sold massively on first appearance, and survived the rapid deflation of Walpole’s reputation after his death from diabetes in 1941. In his genial introduction to this reprint (included, strangely, without variation in all four volumes) Eric Robson usefully sets the novels in the context of Walpole’s prosperous but shakily-founded career and stresses their traditional narrative virtues, though perhaps underestimating the darkness of the tetralogy as a whole, and Walpole’s real strengths as a writer of the gothic. (He was, appropriately, a collateral descendent of the author of Otranto.) There has been some quiet recognition of these strengths in recent years: Tarnhelm, a highly original werewolf story told from a child’s viewpoint, featured in a collection of his weird tales issued in 2003 by Tartarus Press as a limited edition, which deserves a cheap reissue. And several fantasy websites currently draw attention to Portrait of a Man with Red Hair, his dreamlike 1925 novella about sadism.
As for Herries, there will be places in these massive blocks of paper where everyone will want to skip. But Walpole’s ham-fisted, messy and eccentric attempt at the Great Lakeland Novel still deserves to be read. The episodes – by turns gracelessly ornate and bleakly brilliant – remain often weirdly enthralling and memorable, their sheer self-indulgence a guilty pleasure for the reader too. In the Herries novels, Walpole confessed, he had allowed himself to be, for the first time in his adult life, ‘what I really am – a little boy telling stories in the dormitory.’