Thursday, May 27, 2004

Ziegler on Hart-Davis

My dears, Philip Ziegler has written a biography of the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, and the world is pretty much agog. Well, bits of it are, anyway. Horace Bent mentioned the book a couple of weeks ago (I won't add a link because you probably won't be able to access it now that the Bookseller has gone commercial); the Sunday Times carried a review on 23 May; and it is mentioned in this week's Private Eye.

The Eye piece is not so much a review as a gentle parody of the literary-biography genre. You know the sort of thing: 'Notwithstanding a natural courtesy, his opinions were always vigorously expressed. He always considered Ulysses to be "jolly rot" and Samuel Beckett to be "an absolute rotter". Pride of place in this demonology was reserved for The Wasteland. "Quite the worst gardening book I've ever come across," he complained.' And so on.

First, what do we know of Ziegler? Well, he's a surprisingly prolific writer, and the official biographer of Edward VIII and Mountbatten. He has also written books on Melbourne, Osbert Sitwell, Diana Cooper, and others. An experienced hand, then.

And who in the world was Rupert Hart-Davis? Answer, he was a publisher. Hence, by definition, a chap worth writing about.

An aside at this point. Matt Pfeffer has written quite a useful little piece on writing for the web. In it, he makes mention of irony. 'Always give your readers a hint,' he suggests, 'that a particular passage is ironic. Even the most obvious instances are often misunderstood.' I shall have to work on this, because I fear that I quite often make remarks which are not intended to be taken entirely seriously. Perhaps I might prepare a little symbol (and not one of those smiley things, either), which I could append to any ironic references so that regular readers, at least, would be given a warning. If I had such a device at my disposal, I would attach it to the last sentence of the paragraph immediately above; because I do not, in fact, believe that all publishers are, of necessity, worth writing about. Not, at any rate, at length. End of aside.

Rupert Hart-Davis was born in 1907 and died in 1999. He was educated at Eton, where he was friendly with James Lees-Milne (of whom more on another occasion). He first wished to be an actor, but soon abandoned the idea and went into publishing in the 1930s. After war service in the army, he set up a company bearing his own name.

As a publisher poor old Rupert was pretty clueless. He had exquisite taste in literature, but curiously enough these wonderful books didn't sell, and he was also short of capital. Any bestsellers which appeared on his list did so by the grace of God rather than through any commercial acumen on his part, and he was frequently ashamed of them: Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals being a case in point.

Rupert was perhaps a better writer than a publisher. He wrote a biography of Walpole which was widely admired in its day, though few people now remember who Walpole was. (I barely do myself.) And his correspondence with George W Lyttelton, his former English teacher, attracted a surprisingly enthusiastic readership when it was published after the latter's death.

The publisher was also, by all accounts, a damn good copy editor. Ziegler reveals that Rupert removed 50 'of courses' from his biography of Diana Cooper. Now there's a really old-fashioned practice! The owner of the firm actually doing some hands-on editing?! I don't think the top men and women do much of that nowadays, do you? Damn it, you're lucky if anybody does any editing. In fact, come to think of it, you're lucky if anyone in the firm has even read the book.

But back to the famous Rupert. During the immediate post-war period, it was not too difficult to shuffle along in publishing, even if you weren't very good at it. But inevitably the day came when the bailiffs were at the gate and Rupert had to allow his firm to be bought out. It was sold first to Heinemann, then to Harcourt Brace, and finally to Granada. I can find no trace of it today, not even as an imprint in one of our vast conglomerates. There is a Bookseller publication from 2002, called Who Owns Whom in British Publishing (a bargain at £55), and it provides a chart which shows how the eponymous publishing dictatorships of the past were gradually taken over and absorbed into ever bigger monsters, losing all trace of their identity along the way (e.g. Victor Gollancz). But the firm of Rupert Hart-Davis was too small and insignificant even to figure on the chart.

Rupert Hart-Davis wasn't much good at marriage, either. He married four times, and at one stage was living with one woman in London and another in the country, at weekends. One thing he was good at, however, was literary politics. Apparently he was a sound committee man, a dab hand at memorial addresses, and a reliable literary executor. In due course these good works earned him a knighthood.

Even in his lifetime, however, Sir Rupert was never a major figure. Why then, one wonders, did Philip Ziegler bother to write this book? Out of fond memories of the old boy? Seems a lot of work to go to, just to preserve his name. And who, one wonders, will read it? Few people are as interested in publishing's past as I am, and at £20 I certainly wouldn't buy the book. Nor have I any intention, at present, of putting in a card for it at the library. But publishing is a funny business, and you can never tell. Perhaps all those people who read and enjoyed his letters will rush out and push it up the charts.