The Dark Forest

In the 1920s and 30s Hugh Walpole, protégé of Henry James, was a best selling novelist, lucrative and popular lecturer and writer, in Hollywood of the inevitable film script (David Copperfield). This goes to show that fame is ephemeral, as is literary reputation, for many of his books have fallen out of print, disappearing from view.

As his friend, J.B.Priestley, noted when he was starting out, he was lauded and supported by the 'highbrows' of emerging modernism but when he became popular (and, thus, inevitably 'low brow') such critical championing vanished not least because there was nothing original in the form of his storytelling. It was a fate that almost embraced Priestley himself until an original and accomplished staging of his 'An Inspector Calls' revived interest at least in his plays, on the coat tails of which new life has been breathed into the novels. No such reinvention has happened to Walpole.

Partly this is understandable because his very fluency (a book a year) and carelessness (his publisher Macmillan had an editor on stand by to receive and rework his scripts) means an inevitable unevenness of output but there are gems - his historical The Herries Chronicle (pictured being held by the author here) is one such, his novel 'The Dark Forest' another.

The commemorations of the hundredth anniversary of the First World War might have provided an opportunity for an enterprising revival of this fascinating novel not least for its novelty.

As a text it holds its own as an account of that conflict with more famous 'rivals' - Graves' 'Goodbye to All That' or the memoirs of Blunden and Sassoon or Owen's poetry - the novelty lies in it being based on the Eastern Front (the war between Austria and Russia) where Walpole served as a member of the Red Cross (his eyesight precluding him from military service) and where he was awarded a medal for gallantry in single handedly rescuing a wounded soldier when all about him were too afraid to accompany him.  A story that gets woven into the plot.

The book, well received at the time, was subsequently condemned for its stereotypical portrayal of character (Russian and English) and yet, of course, stereotypes are so because they are grained with truth and here they vividly come to life. So too does the reality of conflict - long periods of boredom, punctuated with uncertainty, followed by intense action haunted by the uncertainty of life or death.

One of the admirers of Walpole's fiction was C.G. Jung and you can immediately see why because quite naturally Walpole weaves the reality of dream (and the unconscious) into the lives of his characters. It is only when you notice the naturalness of this that you realise how uncommon it is in literature, not the dream as flagged and seminal or as a device but simply there to be accounted for or not, attended to or ignored just as in everyday life.  Nightmares can haunt a lifetime (as one of Death does here) but also they can fleet pass and you can turn over and return to sleep, as we do.

The novel, against the realistic backdrop of conflict, has as its theme two sets of rivalry for the love of two very different women both of which can only be settled through death and in which love is shown to be stronger than death (as St Paul's words, used in the funeral committal service, puts it). In the unfolding of which you are invited to contemplate very different forms of what it means to love someone and to slowly detach yourself from a too hasty judgement as to the 'rightness' of any particular one. Love, at the end may be one, but human beings in their fragility, bear it and shape it very differently and often awkwardly. It is, in the very best sense, a humanising text.

This thematic too, you could imagine, stems from Walpole's own status as gay at a time when such love 'dare not speak its name' (and indeed in later life he developed an unconventional attachment with a former policeman who came to live with him as his 'chauffeur' bringing his wife and apparently happy family in tow such are the myriad paths of human loving). Sadly, for reputation purposes, nothing in the novels overtly displays this so no leverage there as the first war novel too etc etc!

However, the book clings to print (in a inelegant copy that looks as if it has been photostatted) and, hopefully, one day may re-emerge in a format that it deserves on the back of a revival of this accomplished, sensitive story teller of observant detail and humanising intention.


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