Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE (13 March 1884 – 1 June 1941) was a New Zealand-born English novelist. A prolific writer, he published thirty-six novels, five volumes of short stories, two plays and three volumes of memoirs. His skill at scene-setting, his vivid plots, his high profile as a lecturer and his driving ambition brought him a large readership in the United Kingdom and North America. He was a best-selling author in the 1920s and 1930s, but his works have been neglected since his death.
Walpole was born in Auckland, New Zealand, the eldest of three children of the Rev George Walpole, Canon of St Mary's Cathedral, Auckland (later Bishop of Edinburgh from 1910 to 1929) and his wife, Mildred Helen née Barham (1854–1925). Walpole was educated at a series of boarding schools in England, principally at Truro School for two years, the King's School, Canterbury for two years and as a day boy for four years at Durham School, when his father was principal of Bede College at the university. Walpole's popular character Jeremy lived in the cathedral town of Polchester in Glebeshire, an amalgam of Truro and Durham, which featured in many of his later books. The dust-jacket of The Inquisitor (1935) depicted a street map of this imaginary town. Walpole's brief experience of teaching – at Epsom College – is reflected in his third novel Mr Perrin and Mr Traill.
Walpole attended Emmanuel College, Cambridge  Walpole's father hoped that his son would follow him into the clergy, but after working between 1906 and 1909 as a lay missioner at the Mersey Mission to Seamen in Liverpool, and as a teacher, Walpole took up writing as his career.
Walpole's first novel, The Wooden Horse (1909), received good reviews but barely repaid the cost of having it typed. His first commercial success was Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill, published in 1911. The young Walpole cultivated relationships with successful senior writers, and received encouragement from A. C. Benson, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Arnold Bennett.
Ineligible for military service in World War I because of poor eyesight, Walpole worked in Russia, first for the Red Cross, winning the Cross of St George for rescuing a wounded soldier under fire, and later as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau during the Russian Revolution. He drew on this experience for The Dark Forest (1916) and The Secret City (1919). The latter was joint winner of the inaugural James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
After the war, Walpole resumed his prolific writing regime. His novels of the 1920s included The Cathedral (1922), a novel of ecclesiastical machinations; and Wintersmoon (1928), illustrating the clash between traditionalism and modernism: his own sympathies, though not spelled out, were clearly with the traditionalists.
In 1930 Walpole began his most popular series of novels with his historical romance Rogue Herries set in Cumberland in the mid-eighteenth century. This was followed by Judith Paris (1931), The Fortress (1932) and Vanessa (1933), which brought the saga up to the twentieth century. Walpole said of the Herries series, "It carries the English novel no whit further, but it sustains the traditions and has vitality". He also adapted the films David Copperfield (were Walpole also had a cameo as a vicar) and Little Lord Fauntleroy for David O. Selznick. The films were well received and a financial success.
In addition to writing, Walpole frequently lectured on literary subjects. He was a fluent speaker, much in demand, and commanded high fees both in Britain and in America.
Walpole's commercial success enabled him to maintain an expensive lifestyle, with a flat in Piccadilly, London, and a large house, Brackenburn, on the slopes of Catbells overlooking Derwentwater in the Lake District. A discreet homosexual, Walpole spent much time and energy looking for "the ideal friend". From 1926 to his death, his chief companion was Harold Cheevers, a married former policeman, whose official role was Walpole's chauffeur. Other important figures in Walpole's life included Percy Anderson and Lauritz Melchior.
Walpole was a keen and discerning collector of art. He left fourteen works to the nation including paintings by Walter Sickert, Édouard Manet, Augustus John and Jean Renoir. Other artists represented in his collection were Jacob Epstein, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne and Maurice Utrillo.
State honours included the Russian Cross of St George for Walpole's gallantry in the Red Cross; the C.B.E. in 1918; and a knighthood in 1937. In his adopted home of Keswick, a section of the town museum was dedicated to Walpole's memory in 1949, with manuscripts, correspondence, paintings and sculpture from Brackenburn, donated by his sister and brother.
Walpole's health was undermined by diabetes, and he died of a heart attack at Brackenburn, aged 57. He is buried in St John's churchyard in Keswick.
Works and reputation
Walpole’s published books include:
The Wooden Horse, 1909;
Maradick at Forty: A Transition, 1910; Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill, 1911; The Prelude to Adventure, 1912; Fortitude, 1913; The Duchess of Wrexe, Her Decline and Death, 1914; The Golden Scarecrow, 1915; The Dark Forest, 1916; Joseph Conrad, 1916; The Green Mirror, 1918; The Secret City, 1919; Jeremy, 1919;
The Art of James Branch Cabell, 1920; The Captives, 1920; The Thirteen Travellers, 1920; The Young Enchanted, 1921; The Cathedral, 1922; Jeremy and Hamlet, 1923; The Crystal Box, 1924; The Old Ladies, 1924; The English Novel: Some Notes on its Evolution, 1924; Portrait of a Man with Red Hair, 1925; Harmer John, 1926; Reading: An Essay, 1926; Jeremy at Crale, 1927; Anthony Trollope, 1928; My Religious Experience, 1928; The Silver Thorn, 1928; Wintersmoon, 1928; Farthing Hall (with J. B. Priestley), 1929; Hans Frost, 1929;
Rogue Herries, 1930; Above the Dark Circus, 1931; Judith Paris, 1931; The Apple Trees: Four Reminiscences, 1932; The Fortress, 1932; A Letter to a Modern Novelist, 1932; All Souls' Night, 1933; Vanessa, 1933; Extracts from a Diary, 1934; Captain Nicholas, 1934; Cathedral Carol Service, (an episode from "The Inquisitor") 1934; The Inquisitor, 1935; A Prayer for My Son, 1936; John Cornelius: His Life and Adventures, 1937; Head in Green Bronze, and Other Stories, 1938; The Joyful Delaneys, 1938; The Sea Tower, 1939;
Roman Fountain, 1940; The Bright Pavilions, 1940; The Blind Man's House, 1941; Open Letter of an Optimist, 1941; The Killer and the Slain, 1942; Claude Houghton: Appreciations (with Clemence Dane); Katherine Christian, 1943; and Mr. Huffam and Other Stories, 1948.
Walpole also wrote three plays: The Young Huntress (1933); The Cathedral (adaptation of his 1922 novel), 1936; and The Haxtons, 1939.
He also assembled a compilation of short stories called The Second Century of Creepy Stories (1937) by an assortment of writers.
Some of these works constituted series with thematic connections:
- The London Novels
- The Duchess of Wrexe
- The Green Mirror
- The Captives
- The Young Enchanted
- Hans Frost
- Captain Nicholas
- Scenes from Provincial Life
- The Cathedral
- The Old Ladies
- Harmer John
- The Inquisitor
- Rogue Herries
- Judith Paris
- The Fortress
- "The Bright Pavilions"
- Jeremy and Hamlet
- Jeremy at Crale
- Four Fantastic Tales
- Maradick at Forty
- Prelude to Adventure
- Portrait of a Man with Red Hair
- Above the Dark Circus
Walpole was determined to gain critical as well as financial success, and to be accepted as the equal of Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy and Henry James. In his early days, he received frequent and generally approving scrutiny from major literary figures. He became a protégé of Henry James, whose influence is discernible in The Duchess of Wrexe (1914) and The Green Mirror (1917). Virginia Woolf praised his gift for seizing on telling detail: "it is no disparagement to a writer to say that his gift is for the small things rather than for the large… If you are faithful with the details the large effects will grow inevitably out of those very details". Joseph Conrad said of him, "We see Mr. Walpole grappling with the truth of things spiritual and material with his characteristic earnestness, and we can discern the characteristics of this acute and sympathetic explorer of human nature".
Walpole was sensitive about his literary reputation and took adverse criticism badly. When Hilaire Belloc praised P. G. Wodehouse as the best English writer of their day, Walpole took it amiss, to Wodehouse's amusement.
By the 1930s, though his public success remained considerable, critical opinion saw Walpole as outdated, and his reputation took a blow from a malicious caricature in Somerset Maugham's 1930 novel Cakes and Ale in which the character Alroy Kear, a superficial novelist of more ruthless ambition than literary talent, was widely taken to be based on Walpole. By the time of his death, The Times's obituary estimation of him was no higher than, "he had a versatile imagination; he could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English; and he was a man of immense industry, conscientious and painstaking," though this belittling judgment brought forth indignant rebuttals from T. S. Eliot, Kenneth Clark and J. B. Priestley, among others.
Within a few years of his death, Walpole was seen as old-fashioned, and his works were largely neglected. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography summed up: "His psychology was not deep enough for the polemicist, his diction not free enough for those returning from war, and his zest disastrous to a public wary of personal commitment". In 2011, Peter Hitchens wrote, "Henry James and John Buchan praised him. Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf were kind about him. What's more, his books sold enormously well on both sides of the Atlantic, he was knighted, and he became very rich ... Yet now he has vanished completely, his books not even to be found on the back shelves of most second hand shops, dismissed as 'unreadable'".
Critics have not questioned Walpole's versatility: his range included short stories; bildungsroman (Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, 1911, and the Jeremy trilogy) that delve into the psychology of boyhood; gothic horror novels (Portrait of a Man with Red Hair, 1925, and The Killer & The Slain, 1942); biographies (Conrad, 1916; James Branch Cabell, 1920; and Trollope, 1928); plays; and screenplays including David Copperfield, 1935. Walpole was also a member of the Detection Club and contributed to the 1930 BBC serial written by members of that body, Behind the Screen, published in 1983 as The Scoop and Behind the Screen.
Two full-length biographies of Walpole were published after his death.
The first, in 1952, was written by Rupert Hart-Davis, who had known Walpole personally. It was regarded at the time as "among the half dozen best biographies of the century" and has been reissued several times since its first publication. Writing, as he was, when homosexuality was still outlawed in England, Hart-Davis avoided direct mention of his subject's sexuality, so respecting Walpole's habitual discretion and the wishes of his brother and sister. He left readers to read between the lines if they wished, in, for example, references to Turkish baths "providing informal opportunities of meeting interesting strangers". Hart-Davis dedicated the book to "Dorothy, Robin and Harold", Walpole's sister, brother, and long-term companion.
In 1972 Elizabeth Steele's study of Walpole was published in Twayne's English Authors series. Much shorter than Hart-Davis's biography, at 178 pages to his 503, it aimed "to show the sources of Hugh Walpole's success as a writer during the thirty-five years and fifty books of his busy career". Steele also wrote the article on Walpole in the 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which treats his private life briefly but candidly.
- Steele, Elizabeth: ‘Walpole, Sir Hugh Seymour (1884–1941)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 20 Nov 2008
- Hart-Davis, pp. 55-62
- Gale. "Hugh Walpole", Contemporary Authors Online, accessed 20 November 2008
- Hart-Davis, pp. 139, 143
- The Times, 18 January 1921, p. 13
- The Times, 16 March 1928, p. 20
- Literature Online, accessed 20 November 2008
- New York Times
- New York Times
- New York Times
- Hart-Davis, p.188 et seq
- Hart-Davis, passim, e.g., p. 212
- Hart-Davis, pp. 78 and 253
- The Manchester Guardian, 4 August 1941, p. 2
- The Times 12 March 1937, p. 10
- The Manchester Guardian, 5 August 1949, p. 3.
- Hart-Davis, pp. 443-44
- Walpole, Sir Hugh Seymour, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2007; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007 accessed 20 Nov 2008
- The Times obituary, 2 June 1941, p. 6
- Wodehouse, Letter of 1 August 1945
- Hart-Davis, p. 316
- Hart-Davis, p. 420
- Hitchens, Peter. "Holiday Reading," The Mail on Sunday, 8 August 2011
- "Hugh Walpole", a short biography and bibliography, introduced by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, at Violet Books. Accessed June 2008
- Lehmann, J. I. M. Stewart's chapter on biography
- Ziegler, p. 152
- Hart-Davis, p. 84
- Hart-Davis, dedication opposite title page
- Steele, author’s preface
- Hart-Davis, Rupert: Hugh Walpole (Macmillan & Co, 1952).
- Lehmann, John (ed): The Craft of Letters in England: A Symposium Greenwood Publishing Group, 1974 ISBN 978-0-8371-7410-5
- Steele, Elizabeth: Hugh Walpole, Twayne, London, ISBN 0-8057-1560-6,
- Wodehouse, P. G.: Performing Flea: A Self-portrait in Letters Barrie & Jenkins, 1953 ISBN 0-257-66145-X
- Ziegler, Philip: Rupert Hart-Davis, Man of Letters Chatto and Windus, London, 2004 ISBN 0-7011-7320-3
- Howard, John. "Against the Spirit: A Look at Hugh Walpole's The Killer and the Slain". Wormwood No 3 (Autumn 2004), pp. 33–40.
- The Hugh Walpole Chronicles Blog celebrating the life and prolific works of Hugh Walpole
- Works related to Hugh Seymour Walpole at Wikisource
- Works by Hugh Walpole at Project Gutenberg
- Works by Hugh Walpole at Internet Archive
- Hugh Walpole at the Internet Movie Database