Walpole's commercial success enabled him to maintain an expensive lifestyle, with a flat in Piccadilly, London, and a large house, Brackenburn, on the slopes of Catbells overlooking Derwentwater in the Lake District. A discreet homosexual, Walpole spent much time and energy looking for "the ideal friend". From 1926 to his death, his chief companion was Harold Cheevers, a married former policeman, whose official role was Walpole's chauffeur. Other important figures in Walpole's life included Percy Anderson and Lauritz Melchior.
Walpole was born in Auckland, New Zealand, the eldest of three children of the Rev George Henry Somerset Walpole (1854–1929), Canon of St Mary's Cathedral, Auckland (later Bishop of Edinburgh from 1910 to 1929) and his wife, Mildred Helen née Barham (1854–1925). Walpole was educated at a series of boarding schools in England, principally at Truro School for two years, the King's School, Canterbury for two years and as a day boy for four years at Durham School, when his father was principal of Bede College at the university. Walpole's popular character Jeremy lived in the cathedral town of Polchester in Glebeshire, an amalgam of Truro and Durham, which featured in many of his later books. The dust-jacket of The Inquisitor (1935) depicted a street map of this imaginary town. Walpole's brief experience of teaching is reflected in his third novel Mr Perrin and Mr Traill.
Sir Hugh Walpole is best remembered for the fictional Herries family chronicle: Rogue Herries, Judith Paris, The Fortress, and Vanessa. At the end of 1924, Walpole met Harold Cheevers, a constable who had been Revolver Champion of the British Isles and who soon became his friend and companion and remained so for the rest of Walpole's life. In Hart-Davis's words, he came nearer than any other human being did to Walpole's long-sought conception of a perfect friend. Walpole provided a house in Hampstead for Cheevers and his family.
Walpole attended Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Walpole's father hoped that his son would follow him into the clergy, but after working between 1906 and 1909 as a lay missioner at the Mersey Mission to Seamen in Liverpool, and as a teacher, Walpole took up writing as his career.
Walpole's first novel, The Wooden Horse (1909), received good reviews but barely repaid the cost of having it typed. His first commercial success was Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill, published in 1911. The young Walpole cultivated relationships with successful senior writers, and received encouragement from A. C. Benson, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Arnold Bennett.
Ineligible for military service in World War I because of poor eyesight, Walpole worked in Russia, first for the Red Cross, winning the Georgian Medal for rescuing a wounded soldier under fire, and later as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau during the Russian Revolution. He drew on this experience for The Dark Forest (1916) and The Secret City (1919). The latter was joint winner of the inaugural James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
After the war, Walpole resumed his prolific writing regime. His novels of the 1920s included The Cathedral (1922), a novel of ecclesiastical machinations; and Wintersmoon (1928), illustrating the clash between traditionalism and modernism: his own sympathies, though not spelled out, were clearly with the traditionalists.
In 1930 Walpole began his most popular series of novels with his historical romance Rogue Herries set in Cumberland in the mid-eighteenth century. This was followed by Judith Paris (1931), The Fortress (1932) and Vanessa (1933), which brought the saga up to the twentieth century. Walpole said of the Herries series, "It carries the English novel no whit further, but it sustains the traditions and has vitality."
In addition to writing, Walpole frequently lectured on literary subjects. He was a fluent speaker, much in demand, and commanded high fees both in Britain and in America.
Walpole was a keen and discerning collector of art. He left fourteen works to the nation including paintings by Walter Sickert, Édouard Manet, Augustus John and Jean Renoir. Other artists represented in his collection were Jacob Epstein, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne and Maurice Utrillo.
State honours included the Russian Georgian Cross for Walpole's gallantry in the Red Cross; the C.B.E. in 1918; and a knighthood in 1937. In his adopted home of Keswick, a section of the town museum was dedicated to Walpole's memory in 1949, with manuscripts, correspondence, paintings and sculpture from Brackenburn, donated by his sister and brother.
Walpole's health was undermined by diabetes, and he died of a heart attack at Brackenburn, aged 57. He is buried in St John's churchyard in Keswick.
Two full-length biographies of Walpole were published after his death.
The first, in 1952, was written by Rupert Hart-Davis, who had known Walpole personally. It was regarded at the time as "among the half dozen best biographies of the century" and has been reissued several times since its first publication. Writing, as he was, when homosexuality was still outlawed in England, Hart-Davis avoided direct mention of his subject's sexuality, so respecting Walpole's habitual discretion and the wishes of his brother and sister. He left readers to read between the lines if they wished, in, for example, references to Turkish baths "providing informal opportunities of meeting interesting strangers". Hart-Davis dedicated the book to "Dorothy, Robin and Harold" – Walpole's sister, brother, and long-term companion.
In 1972, Elizabeth Steele's study of Walpole was published in Twayne's English Authors series. Much shorter than Hart-Davis's biography, at 178 pages to his 503, it was designed "to show the sources of Hugh Walpole's success as a writer during the thirty-five years and fifty books of his busy career." Steele also wrote the current article on Walpole in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in which his private life is treated briefly but candidly.
Burial: St John Churchyard, Keswick, Cumbria, England
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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