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The novelist Hugh Walpole served with the Red Cross during WW1

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Medicine, World War 1 on Tuesday, 30 April 2013

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This edited article about Hugh Walpole originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 236 published on 23 July 1966.

Hugh Walpole, picture, image, illustration

Sir Hugh Walpole based one of his books on his experiences during the First World War when he tended wounded soldiers for the Red Cross in Russia, by Frank Lea

Sir Hugh Walpole believed that we have two sides to our natures, one good and one evil, and that they are continually fighting each other. This struggle provides the theme for much of his writing, and earned him a reputation as one of the foremost novelists between the two World Wars.

But he wrote many happier books – his family sagas, childhood stories, and a series of novels set in Cornwall helped to add to his wide popularity.

Hugh Walpole was born at Auckland, New Zealand, in 1884, the son of a clergyman who later became Bishop of Edinburgh. When he was five, he sailed with the rest of his family to England, which was to become his true home. He did not enjoy school very much, and it was not until he went to Cambridge that he really settled down in England.

After a short, unhappy spell as a schoolmaster, he worked as a book reviewer, and in 1909 published his first novel, The Wooden Horse, a story of a Cornish family. He quickly followed this with Maradick at Forty, and Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill, a novel about two schoolmasters, which attracted much attention.

His service with the Red Cross in Russia during the First World War gave him the material for two impressive novels, The Dark Forest, and The Secret City. Then, in 1919, he published Jeremy, the first of three books about childhood, which became very popular.

By now firmly established with the reading public on both sides of the Atlantic, Walpole produced three convincing books about the Cornish town of Polchester, The Cathedral, The Old Ladies, and Harmer John. After this came his most ambitious work, a family saga covering a period of a century, called Rogue Herries.

The most famous of his thrillers, Portrait of a Man with Red Hair, appeared in 1925, but it wasn’t until 1942 that Walpole’s best work of this kind appeared. This was The Killer and The Slain, a fantastic story about a murderer who gradually takes on the personality of the man he has killed. The book contains much of Walpole’s finest descriptive writing, including some tense chapters set in the blacked-out streets of wartime London.

Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill

The idea for this powerful tale of rivalry came to Walpole while he was walking through Chelsea on his way to the theatre. “I was in the very middle of the King’s Road,” he wrote, “when I suddenly saw Mr. Perrin staring at me. By the time I had reached the Court Theatre, a brief five minutes, the whole of the story was outlined in my mind . . . I remember that as I climbed the stairs to the gallery I thought of the title.”

The two schoolmasters are the “young, buoyant, vital Mr. Traill” and the “tortured, half-maddened Mr. Perrin”. The trouble between them starts when Traill arrives at Moffatt’s school, and is soon challenging Perrin for the boys’ loyalty and the affections of the attractive Miss Desart.

Gradually Perrin’s warped mind convinces him that Traill is deliberately trying to destroy him, and he starts on a course of action that can only bring tragedy.

The Dark Forest, and The Secret City

These are the two books Walpole plotted while serving with the Red Cross in Russia during the First World War. He actually wrote the first book while tending to the Russian wounded, and the story abounds with vivid, on-the-spot reportage.

After being decorated by the Russians for bravery, Walpole returned to England, where he set to work on the second book. The Secret City is a picture of St. Petersburg at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, in 1917. The book won the James Tait Black prize for outstanding literature.

The “Jeremy” Trilogy

These autobiographical books, Jeremy, Jeremy and Hamlet, and Jeremy at Crale, are the most touching and charming that Walpole ever wrote. Reaching back into his own childhood, he recreated a whole way of a boy’s life. The novels were an instant success in England, and swept America “like a prairie fire”.

Hamlet, incidentally, is a dog.

The Bright Pavilions

After the novels of Sir Walter Scott, this is probably the finest story to be written about the Elizabethan Age.

The novel tells of the many colourful adventures of two brothers, Nicholas and Robin Herries, who are young men in the violent England of the sixteenth century.

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