A Boy at the Hogarth Press is Richard Kennedy’s slender, unassuming memoir of the time he spent working at Leonard Woolf’s publishing house in 1928, when Kennedy was sixteen. As the flap copy has it:
He provides a delightful glimpse into the everyday comings and goings of the Bloomsbury Group and an affectionate recollection of Leonard and Virginia Woolf at work; and, like Lely’s portrait of Cromwell, this record does not omit the warts.
“Affectionate” may be going a bit far. Both Woolfs come off here as more than a little cold, self-absorbed, and even absurd. Bevis Hillier, who provided the book’s brief introduction, notes:
[Kennedy] was of no consequence to the paladins of Bloomsbury. There was no reason to exercise their wit and charm on him. He saw them at their most unguarded and least artificial. That is what makes his account so fascinating.
And it is, both as a irreverent sketch of Leonard and Virginia and as a glimpse of coterie publishing in 1920s London. It takes the form of a diary, despite having been written forty years after the fact, and Kennedy nicely captures the breezy capriciousness that can characterize both diary-writing and sixteen-year-old boys.
Here’s a taste:
I went to supper with the Woolfs. We had strawberries and cream. Mrs W was in a very happy mood. She said she had been to a nightclub the night before and how marvellous it was inventing new foxtrot steps. I thought LW’s back looked a bit disapproving as he was dishing out the strawberries. The other guest was George Rylands, a very good-looking young man who had worked for the Woolfs before going to university. We were publishing a book by him called Words and Poetry and McKnight Kauffer had done a design for the cover. George Rylands egged Mrs W on to talk about how much she enjoyed kicking up her heels. I couldn’t help feeling a little shocked.
Some people came in with huge bundles of flowers to give her. They had been commissioned to write an article about dirt-track racing. As they were very hard up, they were very anxious to get the job, but the editor had turned down their manuscripts. Mrs W had come to their rescue and written a description of the sport, in which she had compared the roaring machines and the arc lights to a medieval tournament.
Some more people came in after supper. Mrs Woolf started rolling her shag cigarettes. She gave one to an American lady who nearly choked to death.
She started talking about the Hogarth Press in a way that I thought didn’t please LW very much, saying it was like keeping a grocer’s shop. I think she is rather cruel in spite of the kind rather dreamy way she looks at you. She described Mrs Cartwright as having the step of an elephant and the ferocity of a tiger, which gives a very false impression as Ma Cartwright has no ferocity at all, although she does charge about everywhere. She also described her sliding down the area steps on her bottom, during the frost.
I consider it bad form to laugh at your employees.
All goes well enough until the young Kennedy makes a mistake that gums up Hogarth’s plans for a uniform edition of a Very Important Author: Virginia Woolf herself.
LW had returned from Rodmell in a towering rage. Apparently the whole Uniform Edition project has been ruined by me because I have unwittingly instructed Spalding & Hodge to cut the paper the wrong size.
LW brought back a number of sacks of apples and potatoes from Rodmell and I tried to help him hump them up the stairs, but he would not accept any assistance from me. He refuses to speak to me. He had Gossling in and gave him a terrific tongue lashing. Gossling’s cheeks went quite pale.
I suppose I have really got the sack. LW says I can’t be trusted to do anything but wrap up parcels and that I am the most frightful idiot he has ever had the privilege of meeting in a long career of suffering fools.
I know, I know: beware the testimony of bitter, sacked employees. What made me trust Kennedy’s account, though, is that he doesn’t pretend to have been better than his famous employers. His faults and foibles are less magnified than theirs because they aren’t indulged by everyone around him. But the narrator of this diary is generally callow, petty, insecure, and just plain clueless. Because Kennedy is not at all invested in making his younger self seem very likable or reliable, it’s paradoxically easier to credit his unsparing portraits of others. When I finished the book I wasn’t thinking “Oh, nasty Woolfs” so much as “Oh, foolish humans.” A Boy at the Hogarth Press is a nifty little book, and of course a must-read for Bloomsbury fans.