BORN: 1884, Auckland, New Zealand
DIED: 1941, Cumberland, England
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
The Cathedral (1922)
Rogue Herries (1930)
Hugh Walpole was one of the most prolific writers of his day. He lived the sophisticated life of London to the fullest yet retained throughout his life a certain boyish enthusiasm and naïveté that are reflected in his writings.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life as the Firstborn Child Hugh Walpole was born on March 13, 1884, the first of three children of George Henry Somerset and Mildred Barham Walpole in New Zealand, where his father was vicar of St. Mary's Church in Parnell, a suburb of Auckland. His family soon moved to New York, where his father taught at the General Theological Seminary, and in 1893, Walpole was sent to England to begin an English public school education; first, in Truro, then in Marlow and at King's School, Canterbury. In 1898, his family moved to Durham from the United States, and Walpole became a day student at Durham School, a place he heartily disliked.
A Born Storyteller Walpole attempted to write historical romances in his teens and seems to have been a born storyteller, although later in life he resented this designation and thought that he was stronger as a creatorof intriguing characters than as a spinner of tales. In October 1903, he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as a subsizar (receiving a yearly stipend because his parents could not pay the full fee); in September 1906, after graduation, he went reluctantly to Liverpool as a lay missioner on the staff of the Mersey Mission to Seamen. It soon became apparent that he was not cut out to be a lay missioner and certainly not a cleric as his father was. He seems to have had little doubt that he wanted a career in letters, and he began supporting himself by teaching in Germany and England until the publication of his first novel, The Wooden Horse in 1909. When the novel was published, Walpole was on the threshold of the London literary world—reviewing books for the London Standard, seeing Henry James, and communicating with other literary figures. He came to know many of the most prominent members of that world: James, Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf, John Buchan, Maurice Hewlett, J. B. Priestley, Dorothy Richardson (who called him “eminently a humanist, a collector of people”), and many others.
Experiences in Revolutionary Russia Just after the start of World War I, Walpole went to Russia to write newspaper articles for the London Daily Mail. Soon he was put in charge of the British propaganda bureau in Petrograd, then capital of Russia, but the enterprise degenerated into a rather farcical operation in which all secrecy was lost, and the office of propaganda became almost useless. He witnessed the first revolution of 1917 in Petrograd and left Russia just as the Bolsheviks were taking over in November 1917. This series of events marked the transfer of governing power from the Tzarist autocracy to the Soviet Union and the end of the Russian Empire. The material for two novels came out of Walpole's Russian experiences—The Dark Forest (1916) and The Secret City (1919), the latter the winner of the first James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the best work of fiction in 1919.
Return to London Back in London, Walpole worked for a short time in the Foreign Office of the Department of Information under novelist John Buchan and was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) after the war. The Green Mirror was published in England in 1918, again to generally good reviews and only one or two dissenting voices. In 1919 Jeremy, the first of a series of books, was published, and Walpole left on the first of several lecture tours of America. On these tours, over the years, he met many American writers. In 1921, A Hugh Walpole Anthology was published with a short prefatory note by Joseph Conrad, one of Walpole's close friends.
The Revenge Novel In 1922, the year of the publication of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses, Walpole produced The Cathedral. Walpole's biographer, Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, suggests that in this novel Walpole hits back at the cathedral clique and the snobbishness of which he and his family were the victims in their years in Durham. The fictional town of Polchester in this novel was also to be the setting for Jeremy, Harmer John (1926), and The Inquisitor (1935).
The Critique Novel In 1924, Walpole purchased Brackenburn, a home in Cumberland. He also kept a flat in London and divided his time between the two locations for the rest of his life. Throughout his career, Walpole felt a simultaneous respect for and distrust of the modernists. In 1928 he produced Wintersmoon, in which he sets forth his ideas on the new “modern” temperament as opposed to the traditional English one and, by extension, his ideas on modernist writers as opposed to traditionalist writers. The coldness, detachment, and scorn for traditional values—personal, societal, literary—that Walpole believed characterized the moderns are manifested in Wintersmoon's characters Rosalind and Ravage. Their foils, or opposites, are Janet Grandison and the members of her husband's aristocratic family.
The Popular Herries Novels The Herries novels, beginning with Rogue Herries in 1930 and continuing with Judith Paris (1931), The Fortress (1932), and Vanessa (1933), reflect something of Walpole's interest in Sir Walter Scott and his own adopted Cumberland. Rogue Herries is about an outcast from society. The novel is set around Cumberland, and its action skirts the events of the 1745 rebellion. In 1934 Walpole went to Holly-wood, where he wrote the scenario for the film version of David Copperfield (1935). He became friends with director George Cukor and producer David Selznick and had a small part in the film. He also worked on other screenplays, including one for Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936).
Hugh Walpole never married. He was knighted in 1937, died at Brackenburn, his Cumberland home, on June 1, 1941, and was buried in St. John's churchyard, Keswick, Cumberland.
Works in Literary Context
Influences Walpole was an avid reader and early on was influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne and his ideas of evil. Walpole said later in life that there were “two strands—say Hawthorne and Trollope—from which I am derived.” Walpole also acknowledged what he considered the superior genius of Virginia Woolf and contrasted it with his own mere talent. Sometimes he felt that he would have liked to have been a more modern writer but realized that he was hopelessly old-fashioned: “verbose, over-emphasized, unreal in many places, sometimes very dull” was his critical self-evaluation on one occasion. He felt that his connection with Virginia Woolf helped him “to get over a little of my sententiousness and sentimentality”—a change he welcomed while at the same time not wanting to surrender too much to her influence.
Romantic Style It is difficult to see any change in his writing because of his friendship with Virginia Woolf, but two years after Wintersmoon, Walpole did depart from traditional realistic fiction with an escape into historical romance. Having become something of an authority on nineteenth-century Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, Walpole's later works reflect the Romantic Scott and not the experimental Woolf. The Romantic movement in literature emphasized the transcendant power of nature and privileged the imagination over reason and emotion over intellect. These elements may have seemed ordinary for readers of Walpole's works.
Interest in Walpole's books, intimately tied to the author himself, dropped off sharply after his death in 1941. The advent of World War II and subsequent changes in literary styles also contributed to a decline in critical and popular attention to his works. Nevertheless, his books are still read, and his position as a prominent twentieth-century novelist remains secure.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Walpole's famous contemporaries include:
Sylvia Beach (1887–1962): Famous American expatriate who owned and ran the influential Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris in the 1920s.
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986): Famous American artist, she is best known for her Southwest themes and her radical defiance in both her art and her life.
T. S. Eliot (1888–1965): Poet whose most famous works, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) and The Waste Land (1922), exhibit the modernist ideas and techniques that Walpole famously critiqued.
George Cukor (1899–1983): American film director who helmed the 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield coscripted by Walpole. Cukor went on to direct film classics such as The Philadelphia Story, Born Yesterday, and My Fair Lady.
Works in Critical Context
Most of Walpole's novels were well received, each one outselling its predecessor. Critics, however, were not impressed. After publication of The Bright Pavilions (1940), for instance, a reviewer commented that Walpole might have been a serious artist but had settled instead for being “a very good entertainer.” But Walpole answered, “This is the old regular ‘highbrow’ attack. How sick I am though of this long-continued attempt to make the novel a solemn, priggish, intellectual affair, removed from the ordinary reader.” This resistance to meet the highbrow demands of the literary experts is demonstrated in novels such as Fortitude, The Duchess of Wrexe, and Rogue Herries.
Fortitude (1913) With Fortitude, Walpole achieved widespread recognition in the literary world of London. The novel is a bildungsroman (a novel of self-cultivation) of sorts with a slow but steady narrative pace and a deadly serious tone. Its young hero, Peter Westcott, displays a toughness in facing bullies, and his emergence as a victor in school struggles suggests a bit of wishful thinking on Walpole's part—what he himself may have wished to accomplish in his unhappy days at school. Some critics, however, objected to the novel's mystical elements. Peter hears voices enumerating a new set of beatitudes at the end of the novel. Walpole saw no problem with the inclusion of the mystical in an otherwise realistic novel.
The Duchess of Wrexe (1914) The Duchess of Wrexe was published to generally favorable reviews. This book is discussed by Walpole's contemporary Henry James in his essay “The Younger Generation.” He praises Walpole's enthusiasm but looks forward to the time when “form” or “a process” will be manifest in Walpole's writings. Indeed, this kind of criticism—again, that he was careless and failed to impose upon his novels some controlling sense of form—was made of Walpole's work throughout his career. He himself realized his lack of a distinguished style, but he recognized and emphasized his strong points—his goodwill, enthusiasm, and verve in storytelling. In a letter to Arnold Bennett (one of the many mutually chiding letters that these two exchanged), Walpole wrote, “I know that I am sentimental, romantic and slipshod,” but, he insisted, this combination of traits represented the essential Hugh Walpole, take it or leave it.
Rogue Herries (1930) Rogue Herries is lively but promises more than it delivers. Walpole develops the tic of saying “he would remember this incident years later,” and then allows allegedly unforgettable events to come to nothing. But Rogue Herries is a good story (one that Virginia Woolf herself enjoyed); and with the other three novels gathered into one volume in 1939, The Herries Chronicle, the story was popular for years. Walpole's own evaluation of the entire series might be applied to his fiction as a whole: “It carries the English novel no whit further but it sustains the tradition and has vitality.”
Responses to Literature
- A unique contribution to the literature of the 1700s and 1800s, gothic fiction shares elements with horror. Research the two genres, identifying the characteristics of each. Then, consider what the two have in common. Find examples of gothic, horror, and gothic horror fiction, explaining how each demonstrates the genre you decide it fits.
- Walpole made it clear that he thought entertainment was the most important purpose his novels served. What other purposes can novels serve? Think about your favorite book. Is entertainment value the most important quality it possesses? If not, what is its most important quality? Do you think all novels should have at least some entertainment value? In your opinion, are novels that emphasize entertainment less artistically important than other, more literary novels? Explain your answer using examples.
- Walpole acknowledged being influenced by Virginia Woolf. Woolf's style was predominantly a stream-of-consciousness technique: her narrations were done through the ongoing thought processes of her characters. Find examples of stream-of-consciousness writing (in Walpole, Woolf, Jamaica Kincaid, Henry James, or others) and then try imitating this style. Can you turn ordinary observation into interesting interior monologue?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who also wrote in nineteenth-century Romantic or gothic styles:
Frankenstein (1818), a novel by Mary Shelley. In this gothic novel, the elements set the pace not only for nineteenth-century literature that challenges science but for the gothic horror genre that developed after it.
The Scarlet Letter (1850), a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this Romantic and gothic work, Puritan values are closely examined and challenged.
Wuthering Heights (1847), a novel by Emily Brontë. This work is often considered not only a classic but one of the most profound romances of all time.
Hart-Davis, Rupert. Hugh Walpole, a Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1952.
James, Henry. Notes on Novelists with Some Other Notes. New York: Scribner's, 1914.
Steele, Elizabeth. Hugh Walpole. New York: Twayne, 1972.
———. Hugh Walpole: His World of Fiction. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1967.
Strong, L. A. G. Personal Remarks. London: Nevill, 1953.
Fantastic Fiction. Hugh Walpole, 1884–1941. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/w/hugh-walpole.
Spartacus Educational. Hugh Seymour Walpole. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jwalpole.htm.
Taormina, Agatha. “The Nineteenth-Century Novel.” Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://nvcc.edu/home/ataormina/novels/history/19thcent.htm.