Obituary: Robert Liddell
Wednesday 29 July 1992
Resident first in Egypt and then in Greece, Liddell never visited England after 1947, and so inevitably tended to be overlooked by literary editors and reviewers. This unjustified neglect of a rare talent extended to his original publishers, Jonathan Cape, where a new dispensation came to the conclusion that, along with his friend Barbara Pym, he had passed his sell-by date. Acclaimed reissues of The Last Enchantments and Stepsons by Peter Owen have recently demonstrated the folly of this assumption.
At the start of our 40 or so years of friendship, I discovered that Liddell's demure manner concealed a formidable, sometimes even ferocious intellect. In this Liddell resembled his much admired Henry James, who had an equally suave but unrelenting way of expressing his disapproval of social, moral or literary inadequacy. Thus, Liddell once wrote to Olivia Manning about her Balkan Trilogy: 'How lucky you are to have had such an eventful life that you can constantly draw from it for your fiction and so are absolved from the tiresome need to invent.' No fool, Manning realised that this was not intended as a compliment.
People, even in his early years, often spoke of Liddell as old-fashioned. When they did so, they were thinking not merely of the formality of his manner and his literary style but also of his rectitude. This rectitude prevented him from committing any of the small social dishonesties - appropriating other people's witticisms or ideas, boasting of friendships which are in fact merely acquaintances - of which most of us are sometimes guilty. It also led him to destroy a vast number of letters from the novelist Elizabeth Taylor after her death. 'How could you bring yourself to do such a thing?' I protested. He replied: 'She asked me to do it. I had to do it.'
It was good that, in the last few years of his life, people once again acknowledged him as the outstanding novelist he was. But even had they not done so, he would have retained his quiet, steely self-confidence. He knew what he was worth.
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