I put off my plan to devote a year’s worth of posts to neglected short story writers and collections for a year when I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave my year of the neglected woman writer quite yet. So I stretched that year into two and have made a pretty poor start of things by putting off this year’s project until–Jeepers, the middle of March. Yes, life is what happens while you’re making other plans.
In any case and not to procrastinate further, let me start things off with a lovely package of ripping yarns: Hugh Walpole’s 1920 collection, The Thirteen Travellers. I’ve wanted to cover this book ever since reading its first story, “Absalom Jay,” which manages to be both satirical and heart-tugging in its portrait of an aging and forgotten fop.
At the height of the Yellow Book era of the late 1890s, Absalom Jay was the perfect embodiment of the London dandy, caricatured in Punch and other magazines:
Everyone always noticed his clothes. But here again one must be fair. It may not have been altogether his clothes that one noticed. From very early years his hair was snow-white, and he wore it brushed straight back from his pink forehead in wavy locks. He wore also a little white tufted Imperial. He had an eyeglass that hung on a thick black cord. His favourite colour was a dark blue, and with this he wore spats (in summer of a truly terrific whiteness), a white slip, black tie, and pearl pin. He wore wonderful boots and shoes and was said to have more of these than any man in London. It was also said that his feet were the smallest (masculine) in the British Isles.
But when Walpole finds Absalom, a year or so after the Armistice, society as he had known it–which had been Society with a capital S–had been left behind, one of the war’s many victims, and good manners and light conversation no longer gained one reliable invitations to dinner parties and dances. He is now an old man, whose living has become increasingly tenuous due to a bit of imprudent speculation just before the war, and whose elbows and welcomes have worn exceedingly thin.
Absalom is one of Walpole’s thirteen travellers–all residents of Horton’s, a respectable residential hotel somewhere between Picadilly and St. James’ Square. Some of them, like Absalom, are moving down, some are moving up, and others are just passing through. For each, Walpole constructs an efficient, well-balanced, and soundly-built story as dependable as Mr. Nix, the manager of Horton’s. He even tosses in a jolly good ghost story.
One could see in The Thirteen Travellers a predecessor to Vicki Baum’s best-seller of a decade later, Grand Hotel, but this is format that’s been around since at least the time of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales: the linked story collection. In Walpole’s case, the link is Horton’s Hotel and the transitional time just after the Great War and before the Twenties started to roar. His cast ranges from young to old, rich to poor, nobility to working class, but they share a common set of English values and prejudices. Not that Walpole is so obtuse that he can’t see that some of these values got banged out of shape in the war and are rapidly being replaced by harsher facts.
Hugh Walpole was one of the most successful English writers of his time, but his reputation took a serious hit after W. Somerset Maugham mocked him in fictional form as the sycophantic social climber, Alton Kear, in his novel Cakes and Ale. By the time he died in 1941, he was considered such a joke that his Time obituary dismissed his work with remarks such as, “He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English.” Since then, however, some of his works, particularly the six novels of the Herries Chronicle, have remained in print and held a small but loyal following. In recent years, his standing has been restored somewhat, but an honest critic would have to acknowledge that he is better remembered as a story-teller than as an artist. And his ghost stories in particular are well worth seeking out and now easily available in the collection, All Souls’ Night, released last year from Valancourt Books.