Author Hugh Walpole comes in from the cold

By Ian Youngs
Arts reporter, BBC News

image captionThe Times described Walpole as a "sentimental egotist" in his obituary

Sir Hugh Walpole was one of the most popular and prolific authors of the first half of the 20th Century - but his reputation was soon ruined. Will a new theatre adaptation of his most popular novel change that?

Walpole's books were runaway best-sellers, he was close friends with Virginia Woolf and Henry James, he wrote Hollywood scripts, served with the Red Cross in Russia during World War I - and even knew Adolf Hitler in the 1920s. It was an eventful life.

But his ripping yarns have not stood the test of time, unlike his more critically-acclaimed contemporaries, partly because his literary reputation was dealt a killer blow when he was savaged by Somerset Maugham.

Of Walpole's novels, the most enduring is Rogue Herries, the story of a knave in 18th Century Cumbria and the first of four books in his Herries Chronicles series.

A stage adaptation of Rogue Herries at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria, is stirring some interest in Walpole once again.

"Walpole was such an enormous emotional hit in his heyday who has absolutely disappeared from the scene," says writer Louise Page, who has adapted the novel for the theatre.

In a sign of Walpole's lingering influence, Page first became aware of the author because she has two friends called Vanessa - both named after the same character in one of the Herries books.

image captionThe new play has been staged with the help of a donation by a longtime Walpole fan

Walpole seems to have been a lot of peoples' parents' favourite author.

One Walpole expert and enthusiast, the critic and poet Grevel Lindop, recalls seeing the novels on his mother's bookshelf.

He did not get around to reading them until he compiled a literary guide to the Lake District and discovered that the Herries Chronicles was the "only group of significant novels" set in the area.

"I got into the novels, I got quite hooked," he says. "They've dated in some ways but they do have wonderful description and action sequences. He's a very good storyteller.

"They are quite gripping, and that was hugely popular with the general public, but it was sneered at by the critics."

The new play has been staged with the help of a £5,000 donation in the memory of a Walpole fan named Eva Kennedy, who died aged 99 in 2010.

She loved Walpole's writing so much that she, too, named her daughter after one of his characters.

Judith Johnstone explains: "When I was born, she had read the Chronicles and was determined that I would be called Judith after Judith Paris.

"My father loved Schubert and was determined to call me Rosamunde. My mother won out."

Walpole was born in 1884 and his writing began to take off in 1911. Rejected by the army during World War I because of poor eyesight, he went to Russia with the Red Cross and won a medal for rescuing a wounded soldier under fire.

During the Russian Revolution, he was head of the Anglo-Russian propaganda bureau and then came to know Hitler during two summers in Germany in the early 1920s.

"During the second of these summers, I was with Hitler on many occasions, talked, walked and ate with him," Walpole later wrote. "I think he rather liked me. I liked him and despised him."

'Very excitable'

Walpole, who was gay, was in Germany with the Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior. Melchior was not gay but the infatuated Walpole funded and accompanied him.

He went with Melchior to the Wagner festival in Bayreuth while Hitler was staying with the Wagners, after being released from prison following the failed Munich Putsch in 1923.

image captionWalpole wrote 36 novels across his lifetime and travelled to Hollywood

Walpole described the future Fuhrer as "shabby, unkempt, very feminine, very excitable" as well as "fearfully ill-educated and quite tenth-rate" and likened him to "mediums I had seen at [Arthur] Conan Doyle's flat".

"I was wrong about one thing - his evil," he wrote. "I didn't detect it then." Walpole concluded: "Why didn't I put poison into his coffee in Wahnfried?"

Walpole wrote 36 novels in all and his popularity spread to America, where it was said that his lucrative lecture tours were more popular than those conducted by Charles Dickens 80 years earlier.

The author even ventured to Hollywood in the 1930s to write the screenplays for David Copperfield, which starred WC Fields, and Little Lord Fauntleroy, starring Mickey Rooney.

And during a gathering of authors at his house in London, he founded The Book Society to promote "the advancement of literature" - the forerunner of what is now the Booktrust charity. He became Sir Hugh in 1937.

'Protest strongly'

But while he had many friends in the literary establishment, his image among others was immortalised by Maugham, who based Alroy Kear in 1930's Cakes and Ale on Walpole. He was depicted as a "selfish, social climbing opportunist", as Grevel Lindop puts it.

The critic Logan Pearsall Smith described Cakes and Ale as "the red-hot poker that killed Hugh Walpole".

His reputation was further tarnished by an obituary in The Times after his death in 1941, which described him as a "sentimental egotist" and damned him with lines like: "He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English."

That prompted a lively exchange in the letters pages, with JB Priestley writing to "protest strongly" at the obituary and TS Eliot defending his "personal charm and unassuming manners".

So what chance of a Walpole revival? "I don't see why it shouldn't take off," Lindop says.

"They need to get a really good scriptwriter and do a TV series - they could have a Lake District Downton Abbey on their hands."

Rogue Herries is at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, until 20 April.

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