Tahiti: The book’s reception (1921)

Katy George’s discovery of Kittie’s letter to Gladys Raikes of 31 March 1923 (see Comments and my post this coming Monday), in which Kittie talks about Percy Lubbock’s ‘Life’ of George, has reminded me that Percy also played a vital part in creating Tahiti from the synopsis that we presume George was perfecting now in 1915 whilst home on weekend leave. In her Preface to Tahiti, Kittie directed ‘words of greatest gratitude’ to Percy for his ‘untiring help’ in ‘dealing’ with all the manuscripts from which the book was assembled. This could not have been easy for him, as he was working on George Calderon: A Sketch from Memory and other projects at the same time. Grant Richards had decided to bring out the ‘Life’ on 10 May 1921 in order to prepare the public for the publication of George’s selected works, which began in July with Tahiti.

Both books were very well received. Kittie’s Cutting Agency sent her over thirty national and international reviews in three months. On 12 August 1921 the Evening Standard put Tahiti at the top of the best-seller list for Central London, and by October it was being reprinted.

But perhaps for Kittie the most gratifying reception was from George’s and her friends. Laurence Binyon, for instance, wrote to her on 13 August 1921:

It is a book I shall never forget. It makes so vivid a picture of the Island in one’s mind — and a not less vivid picture of George. I feel as if I had been there with him. I like best the chapters about the charming Amaru and his hospitality. George brings me so much nearer the natives than the other writers who have written about the South Seas. One sees how disinterested was his feeling for them — not the mere getting of an exotic pleasure and experience. But his insight and knowledge make the story a sad one. What a shame it seems on all us Europeans to have ruined these innocent creatures and (George makes one see) their real civilization! […] I am not fearfully interested in folklore myself, so the parts which give solid information on this score — though I expect of great value — do not delight me so much as the parts of purely human interest, as the descriptions, which have scent and atmosphere as well as vivid pictures.

The educationist and reformer Isabel Fry wrote to Kittie:

The book is simply charming — and vivid and brilliant too. And learned and cultured. But what I enjoy most is the direct sense of personality and the revealing of such a perfectly delightful one, delicate and stalwart, sympathetic but no sentimentalist; and such simplicity combined with a real profundity.

One should remember that for the Edwardians ‘charming’ was as powerfully positive as ‘stalwart’. Kittie’s lifelong friend Constance Sutton, who was extremely well read, wrote: ‘With this and Percy Lubbock’s tribute, you can feel that George’s personality and genius are safe to be recognised for all time.’

But the success came precisely when Kittie was overwhelmed by the biggest loss since George’s death in 1915: on 5 August 1921 her other lifelong female friend, Nina Corbet, died suddenly in Lugano at the age of fifty-four. Kittie left London immediately to comfort Nina’s mother in Torquay, and stayed there some time.

Next entry: 22 March 1915

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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