Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sic transit gloria mundi

From Slightly Foxed Winter 2008. Umbrellas at Dawn by Richard Hughes.

'I don't think he'll be remembered at all.' The hugely successful novelist sat in his apartment at No. 90 Piccadilly confiding to his diary. 'His only fault', he continued, 'was his pomposity about himself and his works.' The year was 1937 and the man of letters, within weeks of being knighted for his services to literature, was musing on the passing away - prematurely at the age of 55 - of the poet and dramatist John Drinkwater.

From his desk overlooking Green Park, the richest novelist of his age was commenting on the foibles of a less successful colleague and competitor. At this moment he seemed master of all he surveyed - the purveyor of best-selling fiction with a literary gloss that placed him comfortably above the Howard Springs and Warwick Deepings of the world; recently returned from a profitable period in Hollywood writing screenplays for several directors, including George Cukor; a man whose vast wealth had allowed him to become a respected collector of books and paintings, and a well-known and generous patron and benefactor of the literary circle of the day. But four years later he too was to die prematurely, at 57, and, more shocking and difficult to credit, he was soon to be as forgotten as John Drinkwater. His name was Hugh Walpole.

It is hard today to appreciate the extent of Hugh Walpole's success. Not only did his novels - which had appeared annually since his first triumph, Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traidill, in 1911 - consistently head the best-seller lists, but he was also a well-known public figure on both sides of the Atlantic. At the time of his death in 1941, he was giving a series of wartime propaganda broadcasts to the USA called 'Hugh Walpole Talking'. His views were sought, his opinions respected. Hugh Walpole was master of his game. Yet there has always been a problem about the reputation of this seemingly dominant figure.

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