"Isn't it amazing how many letters Lytton wrote?"
"Well, it's not quite so amazing when you realize that there weren't telephones. And later in life he hated the phone. It gave him a fright. Also, when I first moved to England , there was still only one telephone per house."
"There was no privacy."
"No, there wasn't any privacy, but also it just wasn't quite so common to use. First of all, in a big old drafty house, like the one that I'm in at the moment, you would have had to have left whatever part of the house you were at and run to get the phone. Lots of people would have been in the habit of letting it ring 20 times to get an answer. So it wasn't convenient.
"The postal services were remarkable. There were three posts a day in London, so you could in the morning send an invitation for somebody to come for a tea and before tea time have got back a response. Even here in the country, until 15 years ago, we had two posts per day. It's in fairly recent times that we're down to one post a day.
"So the post was efficient, it was effective, and since it was used in many of the ways that we now use the telephone, the letters are more immediate, more vibrant, and they more accurately reflect the tone of voice."
Mr. Levy wondered if e-mail were not bringing back letter writing. "Because I certainly correspond now, with some friends, not daily, but once a week, long letters."
"How did you get interested in Lytton and the Apostles?"
"Initially, I learned about the Bloomsbury Group when I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago where I first started in 1959. I learned about the Bloomsbury Group because I was the first, and probably only ever undergraduate, taught by Saul Bellow. When he came back to Chicago he went into something called The Department of Social Thought, a graduate program. I was allowed to take his seminar and we became pals. He was writing Mr. Sammler's Planet, in which the Bloomsbury Group figures. So, he set me to reading Virginia Woolf."
"What an odd duo they would have been -- Lytton and Virginia."
"Wouldn't they? Wouldn't they? But in the end, what actually happened was that I then came to London to study philosophy, then went back to Harvard, studied philosophy there, doing a Ph.D. I ended up transferring to do a Ph.D. in English in the English Department, where a wonderful professor told me that I had best go back to England and write about G.E. Moore. I thought that was a very odd thing. Besides, they were funding me to do this. I'll never forget our conversation. I said, 'It's not an odd subject?' And he said, 'The English Department of Harvard University has a capacious bosom.' That was why I went off to do G.E. Moore and it took an awfully long time.
"Moore was difficult and also there were too many papers. It took me about ten years; the papers were doled out to me piecemeal rather than all at once, and I could never get a handle on it, so it did take me a very long time. And to be honest, it had to wait until his widow died because the last of the papers, and in a way the key to the whole thing, which I think was his attitude to World War I, were in fact papers she hadn't given me. So, it was mostly my fault and lack of imagination."
"And being young."
"And being young and stupid. But it did take long; it was a task that had to take its time. And it did. But then, in fact, I did an edition of some of Lytton's leftovers, before I had finished writing the Moore book. That was published in '72. The Moore book was published in '79."
"My belief," I said, "is that Lytton altered the way it was possible to write biography."
"Michael Holroyd made an even stronger claim the other day when we were doing one of the literary festivals. I was very impressed by it and thought about it and thought, 'Maybe he's right.' What he said was what Lytton actually did was to alter the practice of writing nonfiction. He affected the writing of history, making concision important, making the explanation of motives important, and of course, the one thing that one always forgets, and that is he was the first person to apply Freud to biography. One never thinks of him in that connection, but Freud did.
"There's a letter from Freud confirming it. Lytton had a more pervasive effect than one thinks of now. He knew the secret as Virginia did too, of the concrete and the particular -- how important that is, and how in the end, it's the only thing that we're interested in when we read about people and places and things, it's not the abstract relationships and whether they exemplify Platonic ideals that captures our attention as readers. We may be interested in big ideas, but our attention is caught by small details."
"Lytton didn't come into money, did he, until late in life?"
"No, he didn't. He was not the oldest or the youngest. Marjorie and James were younger. But he never wanted for anything as a child. He was of these big Victorian families, and though they weren't rich they were well off -- they were proper middle class. He was looking forward to moving from Central London to the outer fringes of Hampstead, which he regarded as a 'jungle' at the time, because he thought that there they could manage without a butler.
"He was looking forward to that because he didn't like the butler much. Every family had servants then. In an ordinary house, in the old days when that house was built at the turn of the last century, you would have had two servants to produce the hot water and the heating, as well as keeping it clean."