Henry Hurst

Read­ing to Percy Lub­bock

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Percy Lub­bock (1879-1965) was an English author, prin­ci­pally a lit­er­ary critic, ad­mired also in his life­time for his fine English prose style. He had lived in Italy since his mar­riage in the late 1920s, for much of the time since the early 1930s in a hand­some villa on the Lig­urian coast near Lerici in north-west Italy, built for his wife Sy­bil and him to a tra­di­tional Tus­can de­sign. Sy­bil had died in 1943 and af­ter the Sec­ond World War Percy had suf­fered de­te­ri­o­rat­ing eye­sight, be­com­ing largely blind by the late 1950s. He re­mained men­tally ac­tive, so em­ployed read­ers to keep abreast of cur­rent events and de­vel­op­ments in the lit­er­ary world. I did this be­tween school and univer­sity in 1964. At the start I was still seven­teen years old, to Percy’s eighty-four.

The first sight of Percy in­stalled in his arm­chair, with his large belly en­cased in a blue silk dress­ing gown, half closed eyes, swish­ing gen­tly with a round raf­fia fan if the weather was hot, was the Bud­dha. If I was un­nerved, I don’t re­mem­ber it, and I don’t think I would have been as soon as he started speak­ing. ‘You must re­mem­ber that in­side, I’m just like you’ he said at an early stage. He told me about feel­ing less awk­ward as one of the only ben­e­fits of be­ing older. We talked about what to read – he was open to any­thing that ap­pealed to me – and about how. ‘Don’t try to act what the char­ac­ters say, I can do that for my­self. Just read quickly and evenly, so that I can feel I am turn­ing the pages of a book for my­self.’ We did, in fact, have a rou­tine for read­ing which started, in the­ory, from 11 am un­til lunchtime, with The Times. This was the old-style broad­sheet Times, with clas­si­fied ad­ver­tise­ments on the front page, lead­ers and let­ters on the mid­dle pages, and news with not many photographs on the other pages. It was to be read in a par­tic­u­lar or­der: obit­u­ar­ies first; lead­ers sec­ond; let­ters third; news fourth, with par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on crime or per­sonal or cul­tural in­ter­est

sto­ries, rather than pol­i­tics.

Oc­ca­sion­ally also be­fore lunch if Percy wanted to write a let­ter, he would dic­tate it, I would write it in long­hand and he would sign it. Then, al­low­ing for a siesta, at 4pm we had tea and started on the ‘se­ri­ous’ read­ing of the day – a novel or a non-fic­tional prose work. Nom­i­nally this con­tin­ued un­til din­ner at 8, but at 6 there would be cock­tails. Af­ter din­ner we ei­ther lis­tened to mu­sic, long play­ing records of his favourite Clas­si­cal com­posers, es­pe­cially El­gar (he loved ‘The Dream of Geron­tius’), Schu­bert (Great C Ma­jor sym­phony, I par­tic­u­larly re­mem­ber) and Beethoven, or I read po­etry. When his nephew Jo­ce­lyn was there, he would play on the pi­ano. He was a pi­anist of concert stan­dard with a love for late nineteenth/early twen­ti­eth cen­tury French com­posers as Fauré, Ravel and Saint-Saens, so th­ese oc­ca­sions were great treats. They were also funny. The mo­ment Jo­ce­lyn started play­ing, Percy’s eyes would close and his head slump for­ward onto his chest. ‘He’s asleep, fast asleep’, Jo­ce­lyn would mouth mak­ing a se­ries of ap­pro­pri­ate fa­cial ex­pres­sions, while he played through the piece beau­ti­fully. The sec­ond the last note was played, the head would be raised: ‘What’s next?’ The mo­ment the next piece started, the eyes closed and the head went down, and the whole rou­tine would be re­peated three or four times.

Among books which were first pub­lished in 1963-64, we read John Le Carré’s The Spy who came in from the Cold, Wil­liam Gold­ing’s Lord of the Flies and Gor­don Water­field’s bi­og­ra­phy La­yard of Nin­eveh. We were baf­fled by the Le Carré, as per­haps the author in­tended. Lord of the Flies gripped Percy with the hor­ror of the sit­u­a­tion. La­yard of Nin­eveh led to a comic en­counter with a se­nior Bri­tish ad­mi­ral who had come on a visit from La Spezia. Percy was not go­ing to make things easy for this top brass, so in­stead of his nor­mal en­gag­ing, hu­mor­ous man­ner, he just sat there say­ing noth­ing. A long si­lence fol­lowed un­til even­tu­ally the ad­mi­ral saw La­yard of Nin­eveh, ly­ing on the ta­ble. He picked it up. ‘Jolly good book’, he said. That was all the con­ver­sa­tion I re­mem­ber. Al­though Percy was ready to try any new book, I re­alised early on how re­ward­ing it was to read him works by au­thors he knew. An ex­am­ple was Henry James’s Por­trait of

a Lady. When we got to the point where the phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance of Ralph was first be­ing de­scribed, Percy said, ‘That’s how Robert Louis Steven­son looked’. He went on to de­scribe how he had once seen Steven­son when he had vis­ited his school, and he had also met Wil­liam Mor­ris. The read­ing was never as rig­or­ous as the timetable might sug­gest, be­cause we would get into a con­ver­sa­tion aris­ing from some­thing just read, and th­ese could go in all di­rec­tions. When we were read­ing some­thing we both en­joyed, we sim­ply broke the ‘rules’, as, for ex­am­ple, with Henry Field­ing’s Tom Jones. In no time we dis­pensed with The Times, which at that mo­ment (spring of 1964) was full of how many army units were be­ing sent to Viet­nam. It even man­aged to push po­etry or mu­sic out of the af­ter din­ner ses­sions.

A great gift of Percy’s to any­one who spent time with him was his love of po­etry. His knowl­edge of all English po­etry to the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury was huge and he had a par­tic­u­lar feel­ing for the ro­man­tic po­ets of the early nineteenth cen­tury, with Keats first, fol­lowed by Shel­ley and Co­leridge. He also knew in­ti­mately and loved Browning’s work, par­tic­u­larly the dra­matic mono­logues. He knew by heart swathes of po­etry and could re­cite word per­fectly the Ode to a Nightin­gale, Ode to a Gre­cian Urn and large parts of Kubla Khan among, I am sure, much more. Two nights be­fore his death, when we knew he was fad­ing, I read him some of the Keats odes and as he was be­ing helped to bed later he said, ‘What a strange case mine is, be­ing kept alive on Keats’. He had also writ­ten short po­etic pieces him­self in a rhyth­mic nineteenth cen­tury style. He re­cited one or two of th­ese to me, a ma­jes­tic piece on a sun­set and a sharper piece on a lover dis­ap­pointed. This is how I re­mem­ber them (I have for­got­ten the first two lines of the sec­ond piece so they are my in­ven­tion):

‘Tis but a day that is dead:

Why then this cloud-canopied pomp,

This ban­ner em­pur­pled proudly brush­ing the zenith?

Nay, if a god’s deathbed lay un­der,

A sun­set worthily had cur­tained that paramount agony.

And now, ‘tis but a day that is dead.

Quick, has­ten it into the night!

[I vainly hoped to see her face, But now must look some other place.]

Yet stay! You, madam, seated there,

I hate your smiles and tou­sled hair,

You know her,

I might hear her name.

I thought my thoughts so loud and clear,

It al­most seemed they ought to hear.

So bit­ter-sore each silent word,

I al­most wished they could have heard.

Browning, I think, may have been the cat­a­lyst for a change in our read­ing habits, to­wards big projects. We read The Ring and the Book, his dra­matic nar­ra­tive poem of twenty-one thou­sand lines, in­spired by the record of the trial for mur­der of Count Guido Frances­chini in 1698. He was ac­cused and found guilty of killing his wife Pom­pilia and her par­ents out of jeal­ousy, and Browning recre­ates as verse mono­logues the views of nine ac­tors in the events around the case and Frances­chini’s ap­peal. Percy, as ever, was ab­sorbed in the drama of the dif­fer­ent view­points and the lan­guage used to express the char­ac­ter of those speak­ing, and he drew me also into this. Our next project was more am­bi­tious, and cer­tainly more ob­scure: Wil­liam Mor­ris’s The Earthly Par­adise. The idea in this work is that me­dieval Norse sea­men set off in search of the ev­er­last­ing life, which they do not find. In­stead they end up in a Clas­si­cal Greek com­mu­nity that has some­how mirac­u­lously sur­vived. Twice a month they meet their hosts to feast and tell tales from their re­spec­tive mytholo­gies. They do this in blank verse, and they meet over twelve months, so that there are twenty-four verse sto­ries in all. Th­ese rolled along pleas­antly, but lacked the dra­matic bite that Browning had put into the dif­fer­ent speak­ers in The Ring and the Book. And the work is very long: I re­mem­ber lit­tle ex­cept for sat­is­fac­tion at com­plet­ing a task we reck­oned only a few PhD stu­dents would have ac­com­plished that year!

Our third project was The Faerie Queene - the huge epic poem of Ed­mund

Spenser, writ­ten in rhyming stan­zas and pub­lished in the 1590s. Be­ing writ­ten in the English of Shake­speare’s time was the least of its dif­fi­cul­ties. As the author put it, it was ‘cloudily en­wrapped in Al­le­gor­i­cal de­vises’, at some level cel­e­brat­ing Elizabeth I, but more di­rectly ex­plor­ing the virtues of knights. To even con­tem­plate read­ing this vol­un­tar­ily at age eigh­teen is tes­ti­mony to Percy’s in­tel­lec­tual stim­u­lus. We could work at it to­gether, in a to­tally lop­sided way, with his knowl­edge on one side and my ig­no­rance on the other. I hope he de­rived plea­sure if not ben­e­fit. I gained both, though it was a strug­gle to read through those stan­zas in any­thing like a co­her­ent way. We ran out of time about two-thirds through, when I had to go off to univer­sity, but then Spenser him­self did not com­plete his work.

There were many vis­i­tors and in the warmer sum­mer weather there was gen­er­ally a sub­stan­tial cast of char­ac­ters, not all con­cerned with English lit­er­a­ture. One visit was by the then young Sun­day Times jour­nal­ist, Hunter Davies, who went on to write a bi­og­ra­phy of the Beatles. He cov­ered Percy’s eighty-fifth birth­day and did so with an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled ‘Bosh Grotto’, re­fer­ring to a com­ment Percy was li­able to write in the mar­gins of books he read and to the sea-cave be­neath the house. An­other visit was by Mont­gomery Hyde, an ex-bar­ris­ter who had be­come a suc­cess­ful author of books about colour­ful le­gal cases (tri­als of Os­car Wilde, Roger Case­ment etc.). He was then liv­ing at Lamb House, Rye, the English house of Henry James, and he had asked Percy if he would do­nate James’s pocket watch to the mu­seum there. Percy had said yes, if he came and col­lected it in per­son. Hyde was an ebul­lient char­ac­ter, with a touch of slightly com­i­cal self-im­por­tance. We had an amus­ing out­ing to a restau­rant when he took a photograph of us with his flies un­done. He was cur­rently writ­ing A His­tory of Pornog­ra­phy and, on an­other oc­ca­sion, he and Percy were chat­ting about Sa­muel Pepys’s at­ti­tude to pornog­ra­phy, Percy hav­ing been Pepys Li­brar­ian at Mag­da­lene Col­lege, Cam­bridge, sixty years pre­vi­ously, in 1904. Hyde said he had never been able to find a tran­script of a scan­dalous scene in Pepys’s di­aries con­cern­ing the Duke of Buck­ing­ham. Percy re­cited from mem­ory the de­tails which seem need­less to re­peat about what the Duke did.

It was tough to go from this to be­ing a first-year un­der­grad­u­ate. One day in the fol­low­ing sum­mer va­ca­tion, there was a phone call from Percy’s niece Ge­or­gette: ‘Percy is not well, and we fear the worst. We have no reader and he would be so happy if you were able to come out’. I found him ob­vi­ously weak­ened. I can’t re­mem­ber what we read then, ex­cept for the Keats. We got through a week to my birth­day on 1 Au­gust, when the doc­tor said that he was show­ing pre-coma symp­toms. He was well enough to make a charm­ing toast that evening, but his ca­pac­i­ties were be­gin­ning to peel away. His Ital­ian, which he spoke well to a high lit­er­ary stan­dard – ‘an easy lan­guage to speak badly, a very dif­fi­cult one to speak well’ – had left him. The next day he re­mained in bed. At lunchtime he had just had an ice cream, and made a joke about his boy­ish love of it. Ge­or­gette said she was hold­ing his arm feel­ing his pulse when it stopped. I helped her tie a nap­kin round his head, so that the mouth stayed closed and she closed his eyes. The face was wrin­kled and old. We laid him flat on the bed. A few hours later, the wrin­kles had smoothed out, the face was set in a gen­tle smile and there was still some colour in his cheeks. He looked serene and – there is no other word – beau­ti­ful.

Percy’s obit­u­ary in The Times painted a pic­ture of gen­eral de­cline in his last years. As the read­ing shows, this was so un­true on the in­tel­lec­tual level. He was chair-bound and largely blind, but alert and amus­ing. He once said to me, ‘You will write about me?’ and I said yes, so here it is, af­ter all th­ese years. It brings such plea­sure to think of him and that friend­ship. His own view is ex­pressed in this let­ter he dic­tated when I had tem­po­rar­ily gone back to Eng­land when my fa­ther was re­cov­er­ing af­ter an op­er­a­tion:

Gli Sca­fari

(Au­gust 1964)

My dear Henry,

I am glad to hear what I in­deed did not doubt, that you are much needed and of much help where you are, es­pe­cially to your mother.

I hope all will go well and that you will soon be able to tell me the date of your re­turn. You will know how wel­come you are when you

see and hear me, and I shall then try to con­vince you that through­out your ab­sence I have borne in mind your last in­junc­tion to me, and you will re­mem­ber what that was. I have missed and still miss you very much, es­pe­cially in my in­ner con­scious­ness, which is the most sen­si­tive spot. For the daily play of life I have been greatly helped by both the Si­mons, and oc­ca­sion­ally by a ca­sual raven as well. As for Hume, I think the book for us is Hu­man Na­ture and Un­der­stand­ing. We are nei­ther of us de­fi­cient in ei­ther, but it would be in­ter­est­ing to hear how the philoso­pher re­gards us. You will al­ready have heard from An­nina about Jo­ce­lyn’s mis­for­tune and all it has meant for us here. We ex­pect Ge­or­gette back this evening, so we shall all learn de­tails from her. It sadly af­fects our plans, but I can­not but be thank­ful that it was not worse. We have the Rat­cliffes from King’s here now, so we don’t want for mu­sic. Enough, dear Henry, for the present and I shall hope to hear good news from you be­fore long.

Ever with af­fec­tion yours,


(I can­not now re­mem­ber my in­junc­tion, but it might have re­lated to my in­ten­tion to re­turn soon. There was no copy avail­able of Hume’s A Trea­tise of Hu­man Na­ture, so in­stead we read The Faerie Queene.)

I would want also to give a bet­ter sense of him as a writer, but the story just told is af­ter his ac­tive phase. His type of elab­o­rately crafted English has been out of fash­ion for many years now, and even his best-known books, The Craft of Fic­tion, en­cap­su­lat­ing his think­ing on the nineteenth cen­tury novel, and Earl­ham, his evo­ca­tion of the home of his grand­par­ents, now the Law Fac­ulty of the Univer­sity of East Anglia, are less read than a gen­er­a­tion ago. A book that I be­lieve he thought was among his best work is his novel, The Re­gion Cloud, an al­le­gory to some de­gree of his re­la­tion­ship with Henry James, for whom he was a lit­er­ary sec­re­tary, also edit­ing his let­ters af­ter his death. This has suf­fered from be­ing an ac­tion-free novel, about per­cep­tions of sub­tly chang­ing re­la­tion­ships, but it can surely be seen

in per­spec­tive be­side some of the bet­ter-known nov­els of its time – it was pub­lished in 1925. A slighter book, per­haps, but one I like par­tic­u­larly for its light­ness and the lo­ca­tion in Rome, is Ro­man Pic­tures, pub­lished two years ear­lier. This is a fic­tional so­cial cir­cle where the narrator moves from one per­son to the next in set­tings in Rome un­til he ar­rives back where he be­gan, all the time en­coun­ter­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic and gen­tly satirised peo­ple in their habi­tats. His most solid con­tri­bu­tion was prob­a­bly as a lit­er­ary critic, one of the ear­li­est con­trib­u­tors to the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment, for which he wrote for thirty years from its be­gin­ning in 1902. Now that the iden­ti­ties of the pre­vi­ously anony­mous con­trib­u­tors are known, Percy’s own work can be seen more fully. In there are his views on many works of the first third of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. If th­ese are re­lated to the works pub­lished in his own name, there is a bet­ter ba­sis than be­fore for see­ing his work as a whole. I hope that some­one may take that on.

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