Rupert Hart-Davis: Man of Letters

by Philip Ziegler
ISBN: 0701173203

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Rupert Hart-Davis: Man Of Letters
by Greg Gatenby

Although Rupert Hart-Davis died less than five years ago, already the noted biographer Philip Ziegler has produced a wonderfully readable account of the man and his career. Part of Ziegler's success is due to his own felicitous, often witty writing. But the success is also due to the fact that the career of Hart-Davis spanned most of the twentieth century and so his personal history in many ways is a history of British publishing for the same period. After a shaky start at Heinemann, where he befriended H.G. Wells and J.B. Priestly among other eminent authors, Hart-Davis became an editor at Jonathan Cape in 1933. Ziegler has wicked fun citing examples of Mr. Cape's meanness with money. And "it would have been expected that Cape's partner, Wren Howard, would at least affect benevolence. He was, on the contrary, even more cheese-paring than his chairman." Into this parsimonious house, Hart-Davis brought his efforts to publish books based on their inherent worth rather than their value in the current market. His stance was bound to conflict early and often with Cape who, Ziegler notes, "felt little affection for authors." The meat in this biography comes when Hart-Davis starts his own house and struggles to survive financially while earning the awe of his fellow publishers at the recondite nature of his list. This account of a noble publisher's career might have devolved, in lesser hands, into a tiresome account of sales records and author disputes. But Ziegler effortlessly keeps the reader interested both in the rise and fall of the house's fortunes, and in the complicated love life of the eponymous hero. What strikes the Canadian reader particularly is the similarity between Hart-Davis's efforts and those of houses here such as Lester, Orpen and Dennys-firms which strove to present magnificent writing from around the planet in a culture which too often doesn't seem to care about quality. The generous would describe their efforts as pearls before swine. Rigid capitalists are bound to say Hart-Davis and his ilk are merely quixotic and nave. Regardless, some of the sales figures quoted by Ziegler are appalling, and it is a measure of the tenacity of Hart-Davis that he kept the press alive for so long. While Ziegler's writing is very good, and his account of the house in particular and British publishing in general are immensely informative, the biography is an odd duck in that, the more I read, and the more the biographer was generous to his subject, the less I came to like him. Some years ago, Joyce Carol Oates coined "pathography" to describe those books where the biography is written by someone who ends up hating his subject. Ziegler has spawned the inverse-a life story where selfish and intolerable acts in the subject's personal life are dismissed or rationalized with, to me, shocking bigheartedness. That said, this biography is not hagiography, and I recommend it warmly to anyone even vaguely interested in fine writing or the business of books.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us