[Click here for Part One of this post.]
Hugh Walpole’s father, Somerset Walpole, was an Anglican priest. At the time of his son’s birth in 1884, he was the incumbent at a cathedral in Auckland, New Zealand. Five years later, Rev. Walpole accepted a teaching position at a theological seminary in New York. In 1893, Hugh Walpole was sent to England where, for the next four years, he endured the seemingly inevitable miseries of the English boarding school. Even when his family finally returned to England and Hugh was able to attend a day school, the unhappiness persisted. He spent most of his time in the library, devouring the works of the nineteenth century’s great novelists.
I grew up … discontented, ugly, abnormally sensitive, and excessively conceited. No one liked me – not masters, boys, friends of the family, nor relations who came to stay; and I do not in the least wonder at it. I was untidy, uncleanly, excessively gauche. I believed that I was profoundly misunderstood, that people took my pale and pimpled countenance for the mirror of my soul, that I had marvellous things of interest in me that would one day be discovered.
[quoted in Wikipedia]
In 1903, Walpole began his study of history at Cambridge University. Now he began to find himself as a scholar and as a writer. At the same time, he was struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. (Homosexual acts were decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967.)
Walpole became a prolific writer whose works were widely read and admired. And yet nowadays he is relatively unknown. One reason for this is that he was the victim of a masterful take-down by a rival author: W. Somerset Maugham. (The name “Somerset” seems to have figured fatefully in Walpole’s life.) This occurred in one of Maugham’s most popular novels, Cakes and Ale. Why would Maugham have done this?
Initially, Walpole and Maugham were friends. But according to Selena Hastings’s landmark biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,
…the ruthlessness of Walpole’s self-promotion coupled with a lack of generosity…had begun to repel him. Hugh, it seems, had behaved badly to a couple of good friends of Maugham’s…; he had also, in the course of a recent and prestigious Cambridge lecture, omitted Maugham’s name from a list of well-regarded contemporary novelists….
One can well imagine that last item being the straw the broke the camel’s back. Still, Hastings feels that these are insufficient motivations for the attack, which apparently struck home with devastating force. There was probably more to it, and she opines that it may have had to do with jealousy of a more personal nature. (I’ve not read Cakes and Ale and so can offer no first hand view.)
At any rate, there is now renewed interest in Walpole’s works, and a welcome reissue by Valancourt Books of a collection of his stories can only help in this cause. Among other tales, All Souls’ Night, like Capital Crimes, contains “The Silver Mask.”
Poor Sonia Herries! She skates along on the surface of things, going out with friends and collecting beautiful things for her home. Yet she feels the lack of a deeper meaning to her life.
Sonia Herries was a woman of her time in that outwardly she was cynical and destructive while inwardly she was a creature longing for affection and appreciation. For though she had white hair and was fifty she was outwardly active, young, could do with little sleep and less food, could dance and drink cocktails and play bridge to the end of all time. Inwardly she cared for neither cocktails nor bridge. She was above all things maternal and she had a weak heart, not only a spiritual weak heart but also a physical one. When she suffered, must take her drops, lie down and rest, she allowed no one to see her. Like all the other women of her period and manner of life she had a courage worthy of a better cause.
And fatefully, into her life comes a young man who knows precisely how to play on this neediness. Henry Abbott first presents himself to Sonia as desperately poor, with a wife and infant who are suffering even more than he is. Reluctantly, Sonia admits him into her home. He professes himself awestruck by the beauty of her objets d’art – above all, by a silver mask crafted by a master artisan. Sonia tells herself:
No one who cared so passionately for beautiful things could be quite worthless.
And so begins an insidious form of seduction by a master manipulator and his accomplices.
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Michael Dirda observes the following concerning Walpole:
…he produced a small handful of superior psychological shockers and ghostly tales. As John Howard notes in his introduction to the Valancourt reissue of “All Souls’ Night,” Walpole was a master of mood, uncanny atmosphere and the quietly chilling vignette. His stories are carried along, too, by an exceptionally easygoing and seductive narrative voice, what the costive Henry James described as his acolyte’s enviable “flow.”
During our discussion, Ann said that as she was reading this story, the mounting sense of dread was so powerful and disturbing that she was unable to finish it.
By contrast, Frank’s experience as a psychotherapist caused him to view Sonia Herries as a kind of case study. She was exhibiting, he said, a fatal lack of agency. By this, he meant (as I understand it) that she was allowing people and events to attain dominance over her instead of asserting herself in response to them. She needed to gain and maintain a measure of control over her own life – control which, as a sovereign human being, she was absolutely entitled to possess and to use.
In Michael Dirda’s view, “The Silver Mask” is
…an absolute masterpiece, so eerily inexorable in its development that it should be as famous as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Louise wondered if the mask itself were not a symbolic as well as a literal object. We agreed that this was a reasonable conjecture. I added that after repeated readings of this story, I was developing a desire to see the actual silver mask – or at least, an example of one. Upon performing a Google image search, I found myself staring at numerous images of silver masks. They range from exquisite to grotesque; some seem rather sinister. One is at the top of this post; here are several others:
There are at least two film versions of “The Silver Mask,” retitled as “Kind Lady.” The 1951 version features a rather interesting cast: Angela Lansbury, Maurice Evans, Keenan Wynn, and Ethel Barrymore as the eponymous lady. Here’s the trailer:
“The Silver Mask” is the second story in the All Souls’ Night collection. The first is called “The Whistle.” I almost had the same reaction to it as Ann had to “The Silver Mask.” “The Whistle” is about the intense mutual love and devotion that develops between a man named Blake and a dog named Adam, and what happens to them both. It is beautifully written, but I’m a great worrier when it comes to dogs, both fictional and real.
Walpole gets inside Adam’s head in a way that reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith’s uncanny depiction of the famed Pimlico terrier, Freddie de la Hay:
The two went out into the thin misty autumn sunshine, down through the garden into the garage. The Alsatian walked very close beside Blake, as though some invisible cord held them together. All his life, now two years in length, it had been his instant principle to attach himself to somebody. For, in this curious world where he was, not his natural world at all, every breath, every movement, rustle of wind, sound of voices, patter of rain, ringing of bells, filled him with nervous alarm. He went always on guard, keeping his secret soul to himself, surrendering nothing, a captive in the country of the enemy. There might exist a human being to whom he would surrender himself. Although he had been attached to several he had not, in his two years, yet found one to whom he could give himself. Now as he trod softly over the amber and rosy leaves he was not sure that this man beside whom he walked might not be the one.
I intend to read more of these beautifully crafted (yet seemingly artless) stories.
The next and final post on this discussion will focus on the story “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White.