The Whispering Gallery, by John Lehmann (1955)

     The Whispering Gallery is the first volume of John Lehmann’s autobiography. For those of you who are not as familiar with the Lehmann clan as I (doing a PhD on the subject does help!), John Lehmann (1907-1987) was the younger brother of renowned novelist Rosamond Lehmann, a poet and prominent publisher in his own right, and an intimate of the Bloomsbury Group and many other literary figures of the twentieth century.

The Whispering Gallery spans the years 1907-1938. The first half was of little interest to me, being an account of Lehmann’s childhood in Bourne End and of his education at Eton and Cambridge. The former was already so well-known to me, through his sister Rosamond’s memoir The Swan in the Evening and Selina Hastings’ brilliant biography of her, that I inevitably found it repetitious and wearying. The latter was completely baffling to someone uninitiated to the traditions and jargon of British public schools in the 1920s. I regret to say that I lost interest in the book and put it back on the shelf, where it lay ignored and gathering dust for almost a year. Until late yesterday afternoon, when I decided it was time to finish it, if only for the sake of my conscience. Armed with chocolate to sweeten the tedium, I prepared to struggle through manfully – but became so engrossed that I no longer noticed the passage of time, and received quite a shock when I finally looked up to find it was two o’clock in the morning.

What really interested me was Lehmann’s account of his work at the Hogarth Press, the small publishing company Leonard and Virginia Woolf founded and ran in the basement of their London house. It was he who convinced Leonard to publish the works of his close friends Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and Wystan Auden, but also those of such writers as Cecil Day-Lewis and Henry Green, who were having trouble getting published by more conservative companies. But tension sprang up between him and Leonard, who was suspicious of this new generation of writers, and in 1932 Lehmann left the Hogarth Press and moved to Vienna.

Isherwood, Spender, and Auden were living in Berlin at the time, at the centre of a literary and artistic circle, and Lehmann frequently visited them there. Indeed, he was there the night Hitler orchestrated his infamous putsch in 1933, and was one of the few Englishmen to realize the gravity of the political situation and its implications for the rest of Europe. Already of left-wing tendencies, he became strongly anti-fascist – like many of his class and generation, this led him to embrace communism as the best way of dealing with the disastrous economic situation and of combating fascism, until a second trip to Russia left him thoroughly disenchanted. When civil war broke out in Spain, many of his compatriots volunteered in the International Brigade and went off to fight or drive ambulances, including his brother-in-law, Wogan Phillips, and his close friends Stephen Spender and Julian Bell (Virginia Woolf’s nephew, who lost his life in a bomb explosion a mere six weeks after joining up). Lehmann knew nothing about Spain, however, and was moreover committed to his life in Vienna. He determined to do what he could there, and worked for several years as an underground journalist, collecting and sending back to England all the information on anti-fascist activities on which he could lay his hands.

At the same time, he was working hard on his latest project, the publication of the critically acclaimed magazine New Writing, which finally got off the ground in 1935. He shuttled forth between Vienna and London to negotiate with his publishers, exchanged numerous letters with his friends, Isherwood in particular, pressing them for contributions, travelled to Paris, Prague, Berlin, and Moscow, scouting for new talents, and read piles of manuscripts which were sent to him in Vienna. His accounts of the difficulties he encountered, especially with regard to incompetent translators, and his critical appraisal of the authors he published and grew to know – from Jean Giono to Federico Garcia Lorca to George Orwell – make for a truly fascinating read. Lehmann was firm in his intention not to let political battles take over the magazine to the detriment of literary merit, but inevitably, politics seeped in, as his contributors became more involved in the Spanish conflict and the events taking place in Germany.

In the end, it was politics that brought an end to his Viennese life-style. Lehmann was in Vienna when the Anschluss took place in March 1938, and was watching in the crowd when Hitler came out onto the balcony of the Imperial Hotel and greeted the chanting mob. More than seventy years after the events, you can still feel the fear Lehmann experienced as he scrambled to pack up his belongings, burn compromising documents, and obtain exit visas for a Jewish friend and her daughter (several of his English friends hastily married their Jewish secretaries in order to get them out of the country and to the safety of England). In this case, he was successful, but his friend Yura, an Austrian Jew who was active in the anti-fascist underground and supplied Lehmann with much of his information, was arrested almost immediately and sent to Dachau, and from there to Buchenwald, where he died.

With Lehmann’s return to England, the book draws to a close, and with it, the first chapter of Lehmann’s life, as the loss of his Austrian home and the start of a war that was to change forever the landscape of his childhood home as well left him with the realization that a spiritual home, in the shape of his literary vocation, was the only one on which he could count.

I had heard a great deal about John Lehmann’s overblown ego, his conceit and pompousness, but after reading The Whispering Gallery, I can honestly say that I saw nothing of all that. What emerged instead from his writing were his warmth, his integrity, and his sharp critical analysis, and I am very much looking forward to reading the second volume of his autobiography.

© Florence Berlioz 2011

About Miss Darcy's Library

I love books - buying books, reading books, discussing books, and generally admiring them from all angles (except the e-book). I also love tea, roses, and my dogs, and seldom pass up an opportunity to slip them into the conversation.
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2 Responses to The Whispering Gallery, by John Lehmann (1955)

  1. Pingback: End of Term Reading List | Miss Darcy's Library

  2. This was very interesting, particularly your last paragraph. I know people are often disappointed when they meet writers or other artists they admire, that they’re not like their books; and I recall a quote from a letter written about meeting the young Sargent that ‘if his principles matched his talent’ the writer would be seeking Sargent as his friend.

    To what extent are the weaknesses or strengths of the writer as an ordinary human being known by others, separate from the writer as a person exemplified in their works? (Discuss!)

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