Thursday, May 17, 2012

"This is not so much the first over, as a gentle limbering up," or, Embarking on the Lyttelton/Hart-Davis letters

While waiting to get back to my local bookstore to pick up a copy of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies--I'm nothing if not loyal!--I've been reading the first volume of the collected correspondence of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis, a book that made its way to my shelves a few years back on the recommendation of Michael Dirda. In the course of a piece on the pleasures of James Lees-Milne's diaries at the Barnes and Noble Review, Dirda included the Lyttelton/Hart-Davis correspondence in a list of his ten favorite books, alongside such IBRL favorites as Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Casanova's memoirs, Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel, and In Search of Lost Time. About the list Dirda wrote,
If literature is news that stays news, as Ezra Pound famously said, then such books as those on my list represent what one might call the higher gossip. Their pages are packed with amusing anecdotes, erotic adventures, moral observations, lyrical evocations of the past, bits of biography, encounters with unusual people, and glorious descriptions of nature, art, places, and society. These are, in short, works that recreate a time and a place, while also plunging us deep into a tattered human heart.
I'm only 150 pages into the six volumes of Lyttelton/Hart-Davis letters, and I've already encountered all these elements. These are truly wonderful letters.

The correspondence began in charming fashion: Hart-Davis, a publisher, had been a pupil of Lyttelton at Eton, and when they met again at a dinner party in 1955 Lyttelton complained of being lonely in rural Suffolk:
"Nobody even writes to me," he said. Flushed with wine, I accepted the challenge.

"I'll write to you, George."

"When will you start?"

"Next week-end."

"Right. I'll answer in the middle of the week."
For seven years, until Lyttelton's death, that's what they did.

The first couple of letters are, as you might expect, a bit awkward: tentative and self-consciously literary. But amazingly quickly the pair settle into a true exchange that feels as comfortable as any rambling conversation with an old friend. They're both highly educated and steeped in English literary culture in that oh-so-English public school way that can positively boggle even the relatively literate mind at times. References--most caught, some requiring resort to research--abound, as do quotations, all feeling organic, markers of the mind at work. Hart-Davis, dismissing Lyttelton's apology for the "tediously otiose" act of quoting Dr. Johnson, sums up the pleasure of quotation:
[I]t's such a pleasure to write down splendid words--almost as though one were inventing them.
The most fun part of these early letters is the simple joy these two men are discovering in each other's company--finding that this lark on which they've embarked is, after all, a genuine meeting of the minds, a friendship that seems almost from the start to be infinitely capacious. Most collections of letters are best suited for dipping into rather than reading straight through; this one, at least thus far, seems the rare exception where following the trajectory and growth of the correspondence would more than make up for any of the inevitable tedium brought on by letter after letter after letter.

I'm sure I'll be sharing more in the coming weeks--this post, actually, was a sidetrack from what was to be a simple post about a tossed-off remark by Lyttelton about M. R. James's handwriting, which I promise I'll get to soon. For now, I'll leave you with a line that Hart-Davis quotes from the notebooks of another IBRL favorite, Thomas Hardy*:
Nine-tenths of the letters in which people speak unreservedly of their feelings are written after ten at night.
Being as we're long past that hour, I'll attempt to retain my reticence by retiring.


  1. Anonymous11:57 AM

    They're quite wonderful letters indeed. I've been working my way through the volumes over the last few years, am currently on a combined edition of vols 5 & 6. I also read a single volume with extracts from all of them (sort of like a 'best of'), which is very nice as well if you don't feel like wading through all six.

    Hope you're well.

    Gabriel M / Llama

  2. Came to you via Bookslut linking to your post about Stevenson/James dissing Hardy, and was delighted to find you reading Lyttelton/Hart-Davis. I've owned the collection for some 7 years or so and have read it all through 3 times. They're perfect books to read at bedtime, a couple of nourishing, witty, gossipy, informative letters and then lights off.

  3. You may (or may not) find my Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters website of interest. ( You may, perhaps, be able to fill in some of the gaps or correct any of my howlers.