Literary Friendship Sealed on Stationery

THE LYTTELTON HART-DAVIS LETTERS: CORRESPONDENCE OF GEORGE LYTTELTON AND RUPERT HART-DAVIS edited and introduced, by Rupert Hart-Davis, Chicago: Academy Chicago, (London: John Murray), Volume V: 1960, Volume VI: 1961-62, 193 pp., $29.95 for the double volume

IN 1955, the publisher, editor, and author Rupert Hart-Davis and his former teacher at Eton, George Lyttelton, began what proved to be one of the most charming and urbane correspondences - if not in the entire history of letter writing - then certainly in its recent history, when so few of us seem to have or take the time to communicate in this fashion.

These letters, exchanged at least once a week over a six-year period, were written largely for the pure pleasure of carrying on a literate, civilized conversation by means of pen and paper. Hart-Davis and his former teacher were separated by a 24-year age difference. Hart-Davis led the literary life in London; Lyttelton, a quieter existence in the Suffolk countryside.

Consideration and responsiveness are certainly the keynotes of this shared enterprise, from its inception, when Hart-Davis agreed to take time out of his busy London life to correspond with his old teacher, who complained that no one wrote to him, to the end, when Lyttelton, in declining health, valiantly continued to keep his end up. ``This letter,'' he confesses a few weeks before his death, ``is a striking example of the victory of mind over matter. I got up feeling like death and very nearly fell asleep in the bath. But I formed one resolve - to ignore all else but to write four sides to you, and though I must now go and lie down for a bit, I feel all the better for having done so.''

Although Hart-Davis indubitably led a literary life, it would still be fair to say that it was Lyttelton who lived more exclusively in the world of books. Indeed, Hart-Davis himself observed as much in a letter addressed to his old friend 16 years after his death on what would have been his 100th birthday: ``my share ... was comparatively easy, since I was leading such an active life that all I had to do was to recount my week's doings, using you as the diary I never kept. But your task was far harder ... you had little straw for your magnificent bricks ...''

For Lyttelton, literature furnished ample straw, from marvelous quotations to keen discussions about books that he enjoyed having with his former pupil. By the time they took up the correspondence, the balance of the relationship had shifted so as to give the former student a shade more authority than his ex-teacher. At times, Lyttelton's attitude toward Hart-Davis seems almost overly ingratiating. But in a correspondence like this, perhaps courtliness is the key to success.

Both men's love of books - and of literary gossip - is delightfully contagious, whether or not the reader happens to share their opinions about everyone from Jane Austen, Dr. Johnson, Trollope, Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold to Iris Murdoch, John Betjeman, and Kingsley Amis (Lyttelton's b^ete noire). In these last two volumes, they spend a great deal of time debating the question of D.H. Lawrence: Hart-Davis is one of those involved in defending ``Lady Chatterley's Lover'' against charges of obscenity; while Lyttelton disapproves of the book and its author, provoking the normally good-tempered Hart-Davis into exclaiming, ``Your insistence on the suppression of Lady Chatterley is the only symptom of age that you have ever shown me ... .''

The more personal dimensions of the friendship are also captured in the correspondence. In confessing his concern about his own aging father, Hart-Davis unburdens himself while paying warm tribute to his friend: ``He [Hart-Davis's father] reads all day and night, but enjoys very little, finding his adored Dickens now quite unreadable. ... You could easily be my father - what a difference!''

What a lovely testimony to friendship - and the joys of letter-writing - this classic correspondence has proved to be!

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