Monday, February 06, 2012

`Sudden Fits of Inadvertency'

While my laptop hovered in a persistent vegetative state this past weekend, an angry and, not surprisingly, anonymous reader complained that I had recently misidentified a species of wildflower. By now I ought to be accustomed to the ferocity of online fault-finders, in particular when the matter is trivial. I dutifully double-checked the plant, a field guide and several online sources, and stand by my original identification. I also encourage readers who detect legitimate errors to inform me immediately. A blog is strictly an amateur operation when it comes to quality assurance. I want to get it right, so readers’ help is always appreciated.

I’ve been rereading The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters, published in six volumes between 1978 and 1984. George Lyttleton (1883-1962) was a longtime housemaster and English teacher at Eton. Rupert Hart-Davis (1907-1999) was a publisher and editor, probably best remembered for editing the Collected Letters of Oscar Wilde (1962). Hart-Davis had been Lyttleton’s student at Eton in 1925-26. The men met again at a dinner party in 1955, and started a regular correspondence that continued until Lyttleton’s death in 1962.

For book lovers, reading the Lyttleton/Hart-Davis letters is like eating peanuts: It’s difficult to stop after just one or two volumes. I learned of them ten years ago from Michael Dirda, who rightly described them as “the most delightful bedside books of our time.” These letters of two formidably bookish men are never dry, pretentious or academic. They share literary loves and hates, and much good gossip, but also their lives. The growing bond of trust and affection between Lyttleton and Hart-Davis across volumes is like a slowly growing friendship or love affair in a lushly expansive novel. Here is Lyttleton, in a passage that reminded me of my perturbed reader:

“Do you ever get things quite wrong? Because here is the perfect defense: `What is obvious is not always known, what is known is not always present. Sudden fits of inadvertency will surprise vigilance; slight avocations will seduce attention. And casual eclipses of the mind will darken learning.’ Isn’t it perfect? Johnson, of course.”

Lyttleton quotes from the “Preface” to A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), with its characteristic tone of mingled humility and audacity. Lyttleton's letters are peppered with casual references to Johnson’s life and work. In this context, such allusions are never stuffy or deployed in a show-off manner. They amount to the small talk of civilized men. In 1960, Hart-Davis suggests his former teacher reread The Bridge at San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. Lyttleton replies to his junior by twenty-four years:

“I shall certainly read San Luis Rey again. I remember greatly liking it, and it is high time for a re-reading—on the whole life’s greatest pleasure.”

[ADDENDUM: Dave Lull passes along a link to a site providing notes to the Lyttleton/Hart-Davis letters.]


DC5 said...

I am intrigued by your mention of the Lyttleton/Hart-Davis letters. My wife and I collect books of letters by various authors and others---we must have more than a hundred volumes by now. Strangely, I've never heard of either Lyttleton or Hart-Davis. Thanks for the information on these books.

Huw said...

I've read the 'selection' volume of Lyttelton Hart-Davies letters and enjoyed their entertaining and erudite (but also, as you say, human) exchanges enormously.

Nige said...

Believe it or not, there is a rather brilliant parody of this correspondence, The Marsh-Marlowe Letters (1984), by our great pasticheur Craig Brown.