One of the fascinations of researching and collecting Hugh Walpole’s works is the insights you can get into how the characters and stories of his novels were formed. Many of these insights arise in magazine articles, forewards of other books, ephemera and various books of essays and interviews.
This week I managed to track down a copy of a rare book called “Title To Fame” published in 1937 by Thomas Nelson and Sons and edited by Denys Kilham Roberts (the secretary general of the Society of Authors from 1930 to 1966). In ‘Titles To Fame, the editor assembled together a group of the leading authors of the day to contribute essays on how their most successful books were conceived.
Hugh Walpole contributed an essay on the inspiration for Rogue Herries which was first published in 1930 and went on to become one of his most well known, well read and most successful novels. Hugh tells us how the epic tales were conceived and the story behind how they made it to print.
The origins of Rogue Herries go back an immense way, so far indeed as my very young childhood. For a number of summers from the age of nine to fourteen or so, I went with my parents to stay in a farmhouse in the village of Gosforth in Cumberland, near the lake of Wast Water. It was some ten miles from Wast Water and three miles from the sea, and from the little wind-swept garden of the farm you looked across flat land to the line of sea, and sometimes on a clear day, to the Isle of Man, a little dumpy cloud on the horizon.
I don’t know why it was. I am half Cornish and was brought up all my early years in Cornwall. There is no question, of course, but that the Cornish sea coast is very much finer in every way than the Cumbrian; there is no comparison at all. And yet, that smudgy line of sea from the farm garden was more romantic to me than all the great beauties of Tintagel and the coast beyond Penzance.
We used to bicycle out to the seashore and spend sunny afternoons there, and the first attempt at writing I ever made was a would be sensational story about smuggling concerned with that piece of sea coast and the Isle of Man. I have it still in a small red exercise book, with illustrations by myself. It. did not proceed very far. but that small exercise. book is one of the two origins of Rogue. Herries.
The other one was a passionate desire I always had for the creation of numerous families. This passion is, of course, very irritating for the reviewer, who shrinks from any novel with a family tree at the end of it; but. in those happy days I had no thought of reviewers, and I used to evolve endless family trees, mainly for the love of the names that I put into them, and I would imagine to myself long histories of the more distinguished members of the families.
I suppose when I look into it there was also. a third origin to the Herries books, and that because I have always had a rich taste for the better kind of historical novel.
If you want accurate history you will go, I suppose, to the historian; if you want contemporary manners then the historical novel is not for you. But the life of the past surely offers to the creative imagination many things that can be translated into drama and poetry, and there is a possibility of interpreting the past so that it may become an eloquent commentary on the present.
Whatever modern young critics may say, the historical novel is a true form of creative writing and will remain. Let it be said at once however, that it offers every possible peril to a modern novelist. There is the question of the dialect alone, an exceedingly difficult one. Absolute modernity will not do, nor anything archaic. People must talk naturally, but also like men and women of their time.
There must also be enough knowledge of the period, but not too much. The historical novelist must not appear to be teaching you anything. Narrative must be exciting, but not so exciting as to seem incredible. Moreover, in England there was a period from, say, 1895 to 1905, when the historical novel was grievously debased and made a vehicle for the merest sensationalism.
I had all these things well in mind when I contemplated Rogue Herries. I had never before attempted anything of this kind, and it was especially dangerous perhaps for me because I was a romantic novelist in a realistic period, and had been scolded so often for exactly that.
I wanted in the main to write a long family story, as I thought at first, in three volumes, about life in Cumberland. The only real ambition that I think I had was to connect myself in some way or other with that piece of England that I so dearly loved.
I knew that I had the great disadvantage of not being born a Cumbrian. I knew that the perils of the Cumbrian dialect would be ever far beyond me, not only because it is in itself exceedingly difficult, but also because it varies from village to village in the most tantalising manner.
In all the four Herries books ultimately I had only one passage of dialect, and that I will frankly confess, I took in the main from a book on Cumbrian dialect, using only sentences that were certified by that authority. I would not like to say how many people afterwards informed me that that dialect was incorrect. But of course, if you are a native of the place and have grown up on it, the dialect will be as natural to you as breathing, and I can only say here how splendid it would be if some native cumbrian had genius sufficient to write a real classic about his county. I hope that some-where he or she is already beginning on that adventure.
But I wanted to make my long novel a story about England as well as Cumberland, and I had hoped that beyond that again it might stand for something even more universal than England. I had, you will see, very great ambitions. It was all growing in my heart and mind some two or three years before I ventured to begin it. The three contemplated novels became four. England in the eighteenth century had always been my favourite study, but I will confess that I caught my breath with anxiety at my boldness.
Once begun however, I experienced a year of such eager enjoyment that , whether the book were a failure or a success, the attempt was, for me at least justified. It is the lasting disappointment of the novelist, of course, that he never finally produces anything that approaches a grandeur and fullness what he has earlier contemplated, but while he is actually writing he cheats himself into believing that this time he will succeed where he has failed so often before.
But while I was writing Rogue Herries I had little thoughts of the results. I lived absolutely in that world, and believed it all to be true.
When, however, the completed typescript came back to me and I read it with that strange sense of the book’s reality already escaping one (for a book escapes at every stage more determinedly until at last on publication day it seems to have no connection with one’s self at all), I realised as I corrected it in proof that I was running a terrible risk, for if this first volume failed, what hope could I have that I would interest anybody in the following three? And here I was with possibly four years’ work ahead of me, all doomed to failure and even derision.
Rogue Herries was published, and very dreadful my immediate experiences were. I give them exactly as they occurred, with no animosity against anyone, but the bitterness of that first day will never be quite forgotten by me.
What happened was that on the morning of the publication I walked down the road below my cottage to meet the post. I knew that there would be one or two reviews, and as you can generally tell from the first half-dozen notices of a book whether it is going to be a success or no. Very, very occasionally every bell in the critical universe rings joyfully together. That has happened to me only twice: once with The Dark Forest and afterwards with the Cathedral.
On this particular occasion I was extremely nervous. I knew that I was running a greater risk than ever before, and I had so personal a feeling for Cumberland itself that I felt it would be really dreadful if I disgraced it by writing some silly book about it. I met the post, and it happened that morning that only one of my three daily papers had arrived in it. Standing there in the road I opened that paper and saw at. once that there was a two-column review of Rogue Herries. I read it.
It was written by a man who had been a friend of mine for a great many years and I tell this story mainly because it may disabuse certain persons of that old fable that the reviewing of novelists by other novelists is simply a system of “log-rolling.” I thought that perhaps my friend would not review my book, because this was the last week of his reviewing work on that paper. But no, there he was, with his name at the bottom. The review was quite violently abusing. It was, in fact, almost derisive, and there was, it seemed to me, such a feeling of personal bitterness behind it that I was entirely dumbfounded.
Every critic has, of course, his right to express his personal opinion; he must, in fact, if he is an honourable man, do so. I have never in all my literary life asked for kind treatment, and I had never, I think, until this day been irritated by any unfavourable review for more than five minutes; but it so happened that on this occasion I knew that I was taking tremendous risks, that I was venturing in a fresh field, and that I had these other sequels to come.
I don’t now at all blame my friend for his review, but I still think that if he disliked the book so much he could have left it over for his successor in the following week; or that if the paper had insisted that the book should be reviewed on the day of publication , his abuse might have been tempered a little by the charity of our personal relationship.
You will say here that I am definitely asking for ” log-rolling.” Far from it; I have never in my life praised a friend’s book in public unless I thought it good, and I was not asking for kindness on this occasion, but I will confess that I detested the personal bitterness behind the review. The blow, how-ever, was in its influence very much more severe than any personal feelings could make it, for as I walked back to the house I was sure that this whole new attempt of mine was doomed to failure.
This was the only review that I saw that day, and I think that it was one of the three most miserable days of my life. I had received, of course, only one man’s opinion, but if this man, who was my friend, thought the book so bad that he found it his duty to abuse it without restraint in two whole columns, then it must be bad indeed.
I had already written a number of chapters of the Rogue’s successor, Judith Paris, and I remember that I went up to my room, looked at these chapters, decided to destroy them and to abandon the whole attempt. This little experience is interesting, I think, not because it is in any way important, but because it illustrates the vague, uncertain atmosphere in which any creator of any art must always move. He cannot know, he will never know, the value of anything he does.
It would be easy for a novelist, or a painter, for instance, if all the people he thought intelligent approved his work and all the unintelligent disliked it. He could then assure himself that even if it did not sell, it was remarkable; or if all the unaesthetic people liked it and all the intelligent people derided it, he could comfort himself with the thought that he was giving pleasure to the common everyday man and getting enjoyment from that, and there was his justification. But the trouble always is that naturally every human being reacts to any created thing personally, all the things that he has been and done assist his judgment, and there are very few people in the world whose tastes are so beautifully trained that they can be certain in the rightness of their judgment of contemporary work.
Often before now I have read the criticism of some very intelligent person, have admired his or her splendidly high standards, and then, a week or two later, have read an enthusiastic review by the same critic of work that is obviously not very good, and have known once again that the personal equation has been too strong for the critical standard.
Well, I had a day or two of great unhappiness and then other reviews appeared, some of them extremely favourable. I had letters from friends whose judgment I trusted, seeing the book exactly as I wished, and after a month or so I knew that it was, as such things go, a real success.
The other volumes followed it, and as the years go by they continue to win many new friends, but the reason why Rogue Herries is the most important book for me in my now, I fear, only too long list, is because that novel and its successors have gratified the only real ambition I ever had, namely, that I am connected, and shall be for some time connected, with that piece of country that I love more than any other on earth.
This, I think, is a very humble ambition. For nearly a hundred years now a not very good novel called Hope the Hermit has been read year after year by visitors to the Lake District, and I feel that is a fortunate book, because it shows people over and over again something of the glory and splendour of those lakes and mountains. So, I think, the Herries books also do, and one day, as I have already said, I hope a real Cumbrian will come along and give to the world the true classics in prose, for which that beautiful country is always waiting.
Across the lawn, looking over the wood-now fresh with spring green leaves-to the faint blue waters of the lake, I push back the door, go up the stairs to the room that levels the tree-tops, sit down, fuss with my paper and pen, look about me, and then, suddenly, my vision is filled once again with that other world where I know every little street, the look of every hill, can hear the sound of sea crashing on the shore; figures move, first as shadows, then as it were seen from behind a window, then close to me I hear their voices, know that they are living and true, and that I am one with them, and I begin once again to scribble on to paper what I see and hear their vitality, their truth, these things are truly real to me while I write.
Only when the last word has been written and a strange foreign thing between cloth covers appears on my table do I realize that I have once again been tricked, but already a new vision is opening up. Yes, the novelist is a fortunate man.