Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Buy Walpole’s Brackenburn – but read his books too

Odd coincidence. I was just writing a chapter on Hugh Walpole, the Lakeland novelist, for the forthcoming third volume of Keswick Characters, edited by Patricia Howell and Brian Wilkinson, and I clicked on Google to find an image of Walpole’s house, Brackenburn, above Derwentwater. What came up was an estate agent’s picture: the house has just gone on the market. http://www.findaproperty.com/for-sale/property-12240824

Brackenburn, Hugh Walpole’s house, 1923-41: looking over the garden towards Derwentwater and Skiddaw

Built in 1909 of local stone and perched on the fellside near the south end of the lake, Brackenburn is a beautiful place, even if its design (like Walpole himself) has a slight touch of suburbia about it. Walpole moved there in 1923, and wrote his famous family saga, the Herries Chronicle, there – in between frquent trips to London to enjoy theatre and parties.

He enlarged the house and developed its fabulous gardens, which have been well cared for by the present owners, who I gather have had the house for 22 years.

Walpole’s reputation has flagged since his death in 1941, but his Herries novels are still worth reading. They have big faults, certainly: 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.’ But 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.

One of his finest opassages is the 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 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.

He 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 Herries tetralogy is also the grimmest. It occurs in the third novel, The Fortress, where John and Uhland Herries, cousins who have cherished a lifelong loathing, make their separate ways through dense mist 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 worthy of Conrad or Hardy.

Walpole still deserves to be read. And if you have £1,750,000 to spare you might like to buy his wonderful house and garden too. It really is quite a special place.