Mr. Walpole, for as much as I know him by now, would appreciate grandiosity, mottled with pomposity. And, by the way, when I say “met Hugh Walpole,” I am strictly speaking in the biblio sense of the word. The dude’s been dead for 69 years.
I discovered him on a bookshelf, dirty with neglect, in the garage of a modest house in the foothills of Butte, Montana. My wife and I, always the intrepid antique-hunters, had gone there for an estate sale advertised in the local paper. We found the usual assortment of eight-track tapes, corroded hand tools, macramé potholders, and photo albums featuring children beaming at us from the yellow-tinted 70s. The usual ho-hum junk for a dime.
Then I stepped into the garage, saw the bookcase in the corner and those two rows of tattered-but-proud spines. I stepped a little closer and saw that nearly every title was written by the same man: Sir Hugh Walpole.
His name rang a bell in my head. But only faintly. I was familiar with Hugh Walpole in the same way I was familiar with mascarpone cheese: heard of it, never tried it.
I started pulling the volumes off the shelf and flipping the liver-spotted pages. Above the Dark Tumult, The Bright Pavilions, The Secret City, The Inquisitor. The titles seemed to promise darkness, light, and mystery. The volumes had all been printed in the 1920s, 30s and 40s; only one still wore its dust jacket and nearly all of them were stained with water, coffee rings and (as I’d learn after reading a few passages) tears. The books puffed dust and sighed with age when I opened the covers. There were nearly two dozen Walpoles there on that shelf and I wanted them all.
The man running the estate sale—mid-sixties, rumpled clothes, stained teeth—walked over and asked, “You interested in them books?”
I tried to un-widen my eyes. As a book collector in the advanced stages of delirium, it’s best not to play your hand too early. “Oh,” I coughed, “I might take a look at one or two of them.”
“Well, if you want ’em, I’ll give ’em to you for 50 cents each.”
Holy Mother of Book-Glue! My veins constricted and my ear lobes started to tingle.
Five minutes later, I was toting a box brimming with Walpole out to my car. I was moving at a half-trot, hoping I could get in, start the car, and drive away before the poor man realized he’d just been robbed of what looked like genuine literary gems.
At the time, I thought I’d snagged Walpole’s entire canon. Even then I knew he was an author who had languished into obscurity and if I, compulsive reader that I am, had never heard of his works, then surely he couldn’t have written much more than I had in the box sloshing around in the back seat.
“Immense industry,” indeed: over the span of a three-decade career, he wrote 36 novels, five volumes of short stories, two plays and three volumes of memoirs. Not to mention the screenplay adaptation of one of my favorite Charles Dickens movies, the 1935 version of David Copperfield.
So what happened, Hugh? Where did it all go wrong? Was your fiction really so third-rate that you so quickly tumbled off the literary radar, forever muted to the obscurity of garage sales, flea markets and estate sales? As at least one blogger has noted: “His career stands as a salutary reminder of the fragility of literary reputation.”
Nonetheless, at one point someone must have liked him enough to buy each new release when it hit the bookstore in Butte, Montana. And not just “bought,” but “read.” Even as I left the estate sale, I felt certain that whoever once lived there had devoured each and every one of those Walpoles. I think of her—for I really suspect it was a woman of leisure—absorbed in these novels while outside her window the hills of Butte, Swiss-cheesed with mines, belched toxic smoke. Inside, she lounged in her parlor, Debussy on the Victrola, and let herself be carried away to England’s Lake District on flowery clouds of Walpole's words.
The thin papery sky of the early autumn afternoon was torn, and the eye of the sun, pale but piercing, looked through and down. The eye’s gaze travelled on a shaft of light to the very centre of the town. A little scornful, very arrogant, it surveyed the scene.
--The Inquisitor (1935)
As I do with every book that comes into my library, I opened each of the Walpoles and read the first few paragraphs, knowing that this might very well be all I ever read of the book (sadly, my rate of book intake far exceeds my rate of reading). From the first word, I found Walpole to be a lively, engaging writer who pulled me into his books with both hands grasping my shoulders:
No one perhaps in the United Kingdom was quite so frightened as was Nathalie Swan on the third day of November, 1924, sitting in a third-class carriage about quarter to five of a cold, windy, darkening afternoon. Her train was drawing her into Paddington Station, and how she wished that she were dead!
--Hans Frost (1929)
Miss Henrietta Maxwell, when she was about thirty-five years of age, suffered suddenly from misfortune. She had been for many years quite alone in the world, an only child whose parents had been killed in a carriage accident when she was ten years of age. Then she had acquired an almost masculine independence and self-reliance. Until lately things had gone well with her. Without being rich, she had had, until that fatal August of 1914, quite enough to live upon. She had taken a house in St. Johns’ Wood, not far from Lord’s, with an adorable garden, paneled dining room, and a long music room at that back. She had soon loved this house so much, so deeply, that she had bought it. Then, when the war came, she threw herself completely into war work, nursed in France, worked with desperate seriousness and the severity of a brigadier general over those whom she commanded. Towards the end of 1917 she broke down, had insomnia, came back to England to rest, found it a much longer business than she had expected, and was not really her old self again until after the Armistice. Perhaps she would never be her old self again. Before the war she had not known what nerves were. Now she knew very well.
--“Chinese Horses,” from The Silver Thorn (1928)
And this, perhaps my favorite among the first-paragraphs I read:
Death leapt upon the Rev. Charles Cardinal, Rector of St. Dreots in South Glebeshire, at the moment that he bent down towards the second long drawer of his washhand-stand; he bent down to find a clean collar. It is in its way a symbol of his whole life, that death claimed him before he could find one.
At one moment his mind was intent upon his collar; at the next he was stricken with a wild surmise, a terror that even at that instant he would persuade himself was exaggerated. He saw before his clouding eyes a black pit. A strong hand striking him in the middle of his back flung him contemptuously forward into it; a gasping cry of protest and all was over. Had time been permitted him he would have stretched out a hand towards the shabby black box that, true to all miserly convention, occupied the space beneath his bed. Time was not allowed him. He might take with him into the darkness neither money nor clean clothing.
--The Captives (1920)
But yet, there is something about his writing which draws me in, makes me want to read more, despite the obvious flaws bogging down the pages.
Leafing further into The Silver Thorn, I come across a couple of passages from two short stories which tickle the bibliophile in me:
“What a jolly lot of books you have!” Foster turned round and looked at Fenwick with eager, gratified eyes. “Every book here is interesting! I like your arrangement of them too, and those open bookshelves—it always seems to me a shame to shut up books behind glass!”
In [Miss Maxwell’s] heart of hearts she thought that nobody’s books looked quite so perfect in their shelves as did hers. They seemed to like the room that they were in. They wanted to show her that they did, and there was so much sun in that library that their hearts were thoroughly warm, and some of the most cynical books in the world became quite amiable and kindly from living in that particular corner of that library. In fact, after reading Stendhal one winter very seriously, she moved him bag and baggage from the rather chilly corner by the door and put him in the sun-drenched spot near the window and hoped it would do him good.
Well, I’m sorry to report that, due to the location of the Ws in my own library, Mr. Walpole’s books will have to lodge in the passageway just outside my main library in the basement. It’s a dark and sometimes chilly location, but I hope that the warmth of Walpole’s sentences will brighten the gloom of Virginia Woolf, Richard Yates, and Emile Zola.
I could be entirely mistaken about the perceived charms of Walpole’s writing. After I start reading his novels, he may turn out to be like that cool guy you meet at the party who seems full of wit and outrageous exploits, but who—after you get to know him and have heard him drone through the same stories for the fourth time—turns out to be nothing more than a pompous blowhard. If that’s the case, Mr. Walpole, you deserve your cold, dark shelf in the basement. Otherwise, I'm glad to have made your acquaintance.