The Lyttleton Hart-Davis Letters: A Selection

By Downing, Ben | New Criterion, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The Lyttleton Hart-Davis Letters: A Selection


Downing, Ben, New Criterion


Roger Hudson, editor, The Lyttleton Hart-Davis Letters: A Selection. The Akadine Press, 384 pages, $35

Who says we should never complain? Consider the following. In October 1955 George Lyttleton, a retired Eton master, then seventy-two, was dining with, among others, his former student, the distinguished publisher and man of letters Rupert Hart-Davis. When Lyttleton grumbled that nobody wrote to him anymore, Hart-Davis gallantly promised to do so. Five days later he made good on the pledge; Lyttleton responded; and thus was launched, by a stray bleat of self-pity, a weekly correspondence that, when it ended with Lyttleton's death in 1962, had generated about six hundred of the most delightful letters in English. These, edited by Hart-Davis, were published between 1978 and 1984, but the six volumes have since gone out of print. This selection is therefore overdue and more than welcome.

The main currency of exchange here is, not surprisingly, literary chatter. Although the two men share many tastes--both revere Carlyle and Beerbohm ("He was the perfect petit maitre ... adorning all he touched" Hart-Davis sighs upon Sir Max's death in 1956)--they also play off each other. For his part, Lyttleton assumes the role of rusticated codger, "full of Victorian prejudice." "In ten years' time" he predicts, "I shall be left high and dry by modern literature, and in writing to me you will feel you have joined the spiritualists and are communicating with a ghost." Counters Hart-Davis: "Your fear of senectitude and hardening of the literary arteries seems to me morbid." Lyttleton lovingly tends his herd of betes noires, doting especially on D. H. Lawrence, F. R. Leavis (sometimes referred to as "the man L--v-s"), and, regrettably, like Mark Twain, "the woman Austen." In response, Hart-Davis teases him for his masochistic persistence in reading writers he dislikes. Yet Lyttleton isn't all crotchets; he also produces some cracking anecdotes:

   Old Maugham, talking to a girls' school about the art of writing short
   stories, told them that the essential ingredients were religion, sex,
   mystery, high rank, non-literary language, and brevity. The schoolmistress
   next day told her young charges to try their hand at one according to this
   recipe. After a minute one raised her hand and said she had finished. The
   incredulous mistress told her to read it out, and she did: `My God!', said
   the duchess, `I'm pregnant. I wonder who done it'.

Meanwhile Hart-Davis, in city pent, reports on the latest hurly-burly:

   I asked J.B.P. [Priestley] about his unhappy trip to Australia, where he
   clearly put the natives' backs up, as he inevitably does wherever he goes.
   `What did you say to upset them?' I asked. `Nothing at all', says he--and
   then, after a pause, `I did say that their big cities reminded me of
   Wolverhampton after a long dry spell--but nothing else'.

Having taken upon himself the Herculean task of editing Oscar Wilde's letters, Hart-Davis also provides for Lyttleton a running account of the attendant thrills and irritations. "Vyvyan Holland [Wilde's son] is trying to make me bowdlerise Oscar's letters" he groans at one point, and at another pillories an "incredibly addle-witted society woman" who in her memoirs had printed four Wilde letters:

   Mrs. Beddington seemed to think that to have received a letter from Oscar
   would brand anyone as a pervert down the ages. I told her I had letters to
   250 men and women, including Browning, Gladstone, Matthew Arnold, Irving,
   Ellen Terry, Whistler, Bernard Shaw, Ruskin etc etc, and she really
   couldn't think them all queer. … 

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