In 1918, British novelist Hugh Walpole decided to contact a critic who, in an article in The Daily News on the subject of someone else entirely, had made a fleeting remark about Walpole’s work that was painful enough to wound him. As it happens, that critic was Rebecca West, a fellow author also famous for penning frequent—and frequently biting—literary reviews and essays for various publications. Her letters were no gentler. This was her response.
Dear Mr. Walpole,
What is this about “girding at you for a lot of years”? So far as I can remember I have made but two references to you in my six years of journalism—one this allusion to The Dark Forest. The other a review of The Golden Scarecrow. But if I am wrong please tell me more about it. I suggest that this talk about my continuing for ever and ever this ‘public scalping’ is literary gossip without any basis in fact. I do not conceal my feelings when I think people are talking nonsense. I also do not conceal my feelings when I think people are talking sensibly and beautifully. If people choose to remember the far less frequent occasions of my dislike rather than the quite numerous occasions of my appreciation it is hardly my fault!
It’s certainly true that I don't like your work; I think it facile and without artistic impulse. This is a sincere judgment on purely literary grounds; for I have never met you but once, at a tea-party of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ some months ago. I have never made any attempt to get your books to review. When one is sent to me I review it without, so far as I can remember, any remarkable paroxysm of dislike. I then never mention you again for years. You then write to me and accuse me of having girded at you for years. And make the startling suggestion that “if you think me no good at all then leave me altogether alone”—as if it might not be the duty of a critic to point out the fallaciousness of the method and vision of a writer who was being swallowed whole by the British public, as you are!
Really, Mr. Walpole!
I probably shall leave you alone as I am less keen than ever on reviewing novels now—but I am appalled by the theoretical aspects of your demand.
Really, Mr. Walpole!
It’s sad to hear of your breakdown, and I hope you will be better soon. And I apologise for anything I’ve added to your discomfort by my literary offensiveness.
From Hugh Walpole: A Biography, by Rupert Hart-Davis. Published by Macmillan in 1951.
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