Another Gerhardie Revival

According to an article by novelist Jonathan Coe in The Sunday Times, another attempt to revive the works of William Gerhardie is underway. There seems to be an ongoing competition between Gerhardie and Henry Green for who can be the most revived author from the interwar period. I have some evidence of a 1970s effort to produce a set of “revised definitive” editions. Gerhardie was still alive when this began and may have taken part in the revisions; Michael Holroyd wrote introductions. These were published in the USA by St Martin’s Press in handsome uniform editions which populated remainder shelves for serveral years thereafter. Some of these made it from there to my own shelves, but after starting 2 or 3, they all remained unread. A biography by Dido Davies was published in 1990 and was reviewed by John Bayley along with three of Gerhardie’s books in the London Review of Books. That review is collected in Bayley’s The Power of Delight.

Jonathan Coe is reviewing the latest reissuance of Gerhardie’s first novel Futility, originally published in 1922. He opens with this quote from Gerhardie’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Polyglot:

“Yesterday, at dinner, it suddenly occurred to me what a fine fellow I was. How modest I have been! How good! How unduly unassuming! Arnold Bennett once confided to me that it didn’t matter how you wrote: what mattered was whether you were a good fellow. How unerring that man’s instinct!”

Coe’s text then continues:

If you want to get the measure of what Gerhardie has to offer, I’m not sure that you need to read much more than that. The essence of his tone is there, and Gerhardie is all about tone. An affectation of conceit, done with a twinkle in the eye and a slightly arch mock-formality in the diction and the rhythms of the sentences…It can, in small doses, be enormously funny and engaging. This was the tone that prompted Edith Wharton to recommend Gerhardie’s first novel Futility to the reading public (“most of all for the laughter, the tears, the strong beat of life in it”) and Evelyn Waugh to declare, modestly and generously: “I have talent, but he has genius.”

Coe’s article in The Sunday Times also features that quote in its heading; the same quote also graces the front dustwrapper of the 1990 biography. Waugh was certainly an admirer of Gerhardie’s work and mentions him favorably in an essay on Firbank written in 1929. He also wrote him something of a fan letter in May 1949 relating to what appears to have been a radio talk about Waugh’s work given by Gerhardie:

Very many thanks for speaking about me & for sending me a copy of your address which I read with great interest. As no doubt you recognized I learned a great deal of my trade from your own novels. (Letters, p. 298)

When and where made Waugh made the quoted statement declaring Gerhardie’s genius was a mystery until reader Dave Lull came up with the answer. It actually comes from a letter written by Gerhardie to the TLS appearing in their 12 October 1967 edition (p. 961). It is headed “The Ordeal of Evelyn Waugh” and begins with Gerhardie’s discussion of the importance of anecdotal information in the retrieval of what “has been written and spoken about Evelyn Waugh.” After several rather obscure examples offered to support his point, Gerhardie presents this example of Waugh’s “Proustian snobbery”:

…Of the friends we had in common two women stood out by their beauty–the late Hazel Lavery, wife of the portrait painter, and Wanda Baillie-Hamilton, who on her deathbed recalled Webster’s “cover her face: mine eyes dazzle; she died young.” In the thirties Hazel volunteered to drive me and Evelyn to a house in Piccadilly once occupied by Byron, where Catherine D’Erlanger had stayed with her Paul Morand and the Prince (last but one) of Monaco. We picked up Evelyn at the house of the Lygon sisters (his spiritual home) and on our drive back Hazel remarked: “I should’ve thought you two boys would have made more of the Prince.” At this Evelyn expostulated: “But he’s a Frenchman ! Now had he been, let us say, the Duke of Gloucester, that would’ve been a vastly different matter.”

“Proust”, I observed. “might well have pressed that Monte Carlo thorn to his own long-suffering nightengale breast, with cancerous proliferations of his literary undulations and intermittences of a self-centered heart.”

“Without doubt.”

“But since you two boys place writers above rulers, I might tell you, William, what Evelyn said of you the other day.”

“What ?”

“Picking up a novel of yours, he said: ‘I’m envious of that man. I know I have great talent. But he has genius. I shall never write as well as he.'”

“Great talent!”, I exclaimed. “Evelyn ! What unutterable conceit!”

Cross, he turned on Hazel: “I didn’t say it to you. I said it to Wanda.”

“But I was there”,  she said.

“Wanda told me this herself “, I  appeased his feelings of betrayal by, I hardly realized, a double betrayal.”…

So according to Gerhardie, the phrase was uttered by Waugh to two women, both of whom, separately, repeated it to him. Gehardie closes his letter by quoting Waugh’s 1949 “fan” letter to him also quoted above.

To return to the matter at hand, the latest Gerhardie revival may have been given a somewhat fitful start at the turn of the century. According to Coe, Gerhardie is today probably :

…best known through the work of a novelist from a different generation: William Boyd, who used him as the model for Logan Mountstuart, the protagonist of Any Human Heart (2002). Boyd conceived the writer-hero of that epic and masterly novel as “a minor talent but one who, through the rackety, roller-coaster life he led, would be somehow exemplary of the human condition, would be a true man of the 20th century”.

Coe’s article goes on to describe the plot of Futility and discuss its place in Gerhardie’s oeuvre and then concludes with this:

Was Gerhardie’s oblivion really his due? That, certainly, would be too harsh a verdict; but Boyd’s assessment of him as “a minor talent” feels just. Nonetheless, his voice (reminiscent at times of PG Wodehouse, but a strongly politicised Wodehouse) is unique in English literature. You could argue that everyone should read one Gerhardie novel, at least, and Futility is probably as good as any.

UPDATE: The information about the source of Waugh’s quote was added after its source was provided by Dave Lull.

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