Rupert Hart-Davis: man of letters by Philip Ziegler

A pompous publisher from the old school
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The Independent Culture

In his day, Hart-Davis was hugely admired as a publisher who valued excellence over profitability, but the overwhelming impression left by this sympathetic and well-wrought biography is that of a pompous curmudgeon with commonplace views, whose contribution to literary life was more modest than his devotees would have us believe.

"I was knighted in 1967, but clearly the news hasn't filtered through to you," Rupert Hart-Davis once wrote to an editor at Faber who had rashly addressed him as "Mr". In his day, Hart-Davis was hugely admired as a publisher who valued excellence over profitability, but the overwhelming impression left by this sympathetic and well-wrought biography is that of a pompous curmudgeon with commonplace views, whose contribution to literary life was more modest than his devotees would have us believe.

A tall, pipe-smoking, heavily tweeded figure, keen on cricket, crosswords and detective stories, Hart-Davis was the son - or reputed son - of a stockbroker.

He was obsessed by his mother, and amateur psychologists might speculate that his tally of four wives, and the glutinous baby-talk in which he addressed them, reflected a mother-fixation. After Eton and Balliol, he tried his hand as an actor. He was too wooden to succeed, but married Peggy Ashcroft. Sex proved a problem, and before long she was having an affair with "Jolly Jack" Priestley.

Hamish Hamilton suggested he should try publishing, so after an unhappy spell at Heinemann he went on to Jonathan Cape, the classiest literary publisher of the day. He signed up his schoolfriend Peter Fleming (the travel writer, and Ian's brother), but old Cape thought him uppity when he came back after the war. Egged on by David Garnett, Hart-Davis set up on his own in 1945.

Hart-Davis's books were famously well designed, and a series of bestsellers - Stephen Potter's 'Gamesmanship' books, Elephant Bill, Gerald Durrell's magical My Family and Other Animals and, above all, Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet - funded the poetry of Charles Causley and R S Thomas, and reprints of the classics. The firm was run on pleasingly old-fashioned lines: long, bibulous lunches might be followed by a match at Lord's, or an afternoon spent on his own magisterial edition of Oscar Wilde's letters.

His finest extra-mural activity was his life of Hugh Walpole, a masterpiece of discretion in which his hero's homosexuality was hidden from the old ladies who loved his novels but obvious to those in the know. Turkish baths, we learn, provided "informal opportunities for meeting interesting strangers".

By now, Hart-Davis was spending the weeks in London with Ruth Simon and weekends with his wife in the Chilterns. He also embarked on an interminable correspondence with his old schoolmaster, George Lyttelton. Smug and stuffy as the letters are, they were published years later in several volumes, enjoyed critical success, and gave Hart-Davis an opportunity to play the role of irascible author.

After selling his company twice over, he departed in a huff in 1963, and spent the rest of his long life in the Yorkshire dales. He did good things in his day, but whether he merits a full-length life is another matter.

Jeremy Lewis

The reviewer's biography of Cyril Connolly is published by Pimlico

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