Readers of the published letters between George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis are like members of a club to which access is provided by introduction. My own introduction came in Delhi from my Indian dentist, one of the best-read men I have met (and the only dentist of mine who has offered coffee after a session of treatment).
The contributors to this extraordinary correspondence first met at Eton, where Hart-Davis attended Lyttelton’s inspirational ‘English extra studies’ classes for senior boys. When they ran across each other thirty years later at a dinner party, Hart-Davis had become a successful publisher and Lyttelton, ten years retired, led a rusticated existence in Suffolk. ‘Nobody ever writes to me,’ Lyttelton complained, and his former pupil – ‘flushed with wine’ – promised to do so. The two men wrote to each other virtually every week for the next six years, starting in October 1955, the sequence only ending with the older man’s death in April 1962; the last letter, dictated by Lyttelton to his wife, was posted a week before he died.
The correspondence was an Olympic feat by both men, albeit for different reasons. Hart-Davis at that time led a life of frantic and scarcely credible complexity. He ran a successful publishing house and frequently chaired committees and public meetings. During four of the six years he was editing the letters of Oscar Wilde, a task that would normally have demanded a full-time writer backed by researchers. He read with a gargantuan appetite, including the eightdetective stories a month which he reviewed for the magazine Time and Tide. He lunched and dined regularly with the great and the good, the roster including Arthur Ransome, Alistair Cooke, Eric Linklater, Osbert Lancaster, Edmund Blunden, Peter Fleming, Raymond Mortimer (‘met on a raft in the Mediterranean’), Joyce Grenfell, Rose Macaulay, J. B. Priestley, Max Beerbohm, Neville Cardus, Somerset Maugham, William Plomer, John Gielgud, T. S. Eliot . . . Whew! On top of all this he had a wife, two sons and a daughter, not to mention a former wife (Peggy Ashcroft) and – as eventually revealed in the letters – a mistress to whom he was devoted.
The Hart-Davis element of the letters was largely a record of these non-stop endeavours, or ‘the diary I never kept’. His correspondent’s situation was very different. Lyttelton was for the most part simply at home with his wife, more often than not sitting in his sum
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