BBC Radio 4, 3 May 2011
Hugh Walpole was one of the most successful writers of the pre-war
era. The author of more than fifty books, he attained sales figures (70,000-plus), the like of which few of his contemporaries
could dream of. A celebrity in his own right - who went to Hollywood, wrote the screenplay for David Copperfield
(1934), and appeared in a cameo role in the same film, making up his dialogue as he went along. Walpole was the kind of person
who would regularly have played the chat-show circuit on both sides of the Atlantic, were he alive today.
And yet, sadly, he is almost forgotten now. Eric Robson, a devotee of his work, went
to find out why. Robson started off in Cumbria, where Walpole did most of his creative writing, and found that the novelist
enjoyed the peace and quiet, as opposed to the hurlyburly of London. Walpole liked to be seen in the highest social circles,
but could not produce there. He was a friend of many celebrated novelists, including Virginia Woolf, who envied his ability
to sell so many books. She produced experimental material that was welcomed by literary critics; Walpole made money.
And herein lies the reason for his fall from literary grace. Unlike Woolf or Forester,
Walpole was always identified as a commercial novelist sacrificing his talent as he produced book after book without appearing
to pause for breath. It was as if he could not stop writing; like his near-contemporary Arnold Bennett. For many literary
critics, however, Walpole's emphasis on quality rather than quantity has produced several inferior novels: the critic Valentine
Cunningham was particularly scathing about his work.
Walpole's social life also attracted adverse criticism, especially from Somerset
Maugham, who drew a vicious caricature of his near-contemporary in the novel Cakes and Ale (1930). Robson believed
that this had contributed in no small way to Walpole's demise as a literary figure; in an interview with Maugham's biographer
Selina Hastings, he implied that Maugham was actually out to destroy Walpole out of jealousy and rivalry. However Hastings
would have none of it.
Perhaps Walpole was just too successful in a culture which has always been
suspicious of such people: think, for instance, of the way in which Jeffrey Archer was derided in the 1980s, at the time when
he produced bestseller after bestseller. No one to my knowledge has lionized J. K. Rowling; despite her phenomenonal success,
she is regarded as a writer of childrens' potboilers. 'Success' is not measured in terms of copies sold, but by the ways in
which critics treat you; and Walpole has seldom attracted much favourable comment, either during his lifetime or in recent
years. Perhaps he is doomed to remain on the literary margins. The producer of this entertaining documentary was Barney Rowntree.