No, don’t worry this isn’t an outburst from some superannuated copywriter fixated on hyperbole, nor is it (well, not in this case anyway!) the sad contrivance of a frustrated editor trying to sell his dodgy wares. It is a real quote about a very good book. David Hare said it, going on to say, a little more soberly:
‘When I was at school in the early 1960s, the satire movement gave us all hope that Britain might one day emerge from its medieval gloom. Humphrey Carpenter’s book is the most complete and compelling analysis of the brief, fragile flowering of something wholly original.’
And you don’t just to have take David Hare’s word (though it tends to be a pretty reliable one) for it. Someone, being there at the time, who really should know is Jonathan Miller and he has called it ‘definitive’. Although the means was unexpected (Alan Bennett’s wonderful play about Auden and Britten, The Habit of Art in which the figure of Humphrey Carpenter has an important role) it is nice to see Humphrey Carpenter receiving some recognition again. He was a good writer and Faber Finds have reissued a generous selection of his titles (see faberfinds.co.uk), not least his own biography of W. H. Auden.
There’s a nice irony here as Auden disappoved of biography, or at any rate claimed to, but Carpenter’s was well received on publication. John Bayley, for example, praising Carpenter as ‘ a model biographer – diligent, unspeculative, sympathetic, and extremely good at finding out what happened when and to whom . . . an admirably detailed and researched study.’