My grandparents’ books were ranged in a deep alcove by the fireplace, a shadowy and mysterious recess that invited exploration. During visits in school holidays, I read my way through those faded hardbacks and ever afterwards associated their authors with the thrill of exploring that dark corner. The pleasurably fusty smell of the pages seemed to me the smell of an epoch, of the generation of my grandparents, born in the 1890s. Over the years I made the acquaintance of the writers they had grown up with – Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, Hugh Walpole.
Ah, Hugh Walpole. Who reads him now? So prolific (36 novels by the time he died in 1941, still in his fifties), so well-loved in his day. He didn’t always find favour with highbrow critics; a traditionalist in an age of experimentation, a romantic in an age of realism, he broke no moulds – but his books were bestsellers and his reputation stood high, at least before Somerset Maugham lampooned him in Cakes and Ale as the talentless, tirelessly networking Alroy Kear. The postwar world appears to have endorsed Maugham’s verdict; at any rate, although Walpole’s Herries saga has found fans, he has been largely discarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant. And yet of all the books in that alcove it was a slim volume of Walpole’s, a favourite of my mother’s before me, that I loved and which I appropriated and took home with me: Jeremy (1918), the first in his trilogy about a young boy.
I doubt that Walpole himself would have picked this out as the work for which he most deserves to be remembered. It was hugely popular at the time, as attested by the number of boys named after its eponymous hero in the years following its publication, but he put far more labour and ambition into other novels (Jeremy was written in spare moments while Walpole was doing propaganda work in Russia during the First World War). Yet while whatever else of his I read in youth has long faded from
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