George Rylands has lived in King's College, Cambridge, since 1927 when he first became a fellow and a don. His residence consists of two large rooms divided by a corridor, a small bedroom at the back, a kitchen and a bathroom. The apartment is known as the Old Provost's Lodge and the spacious study and drawing-room below are still used by the present provost; while the grand staircase is adorned with portraits of past college dignitaries.
The rooms are lined with books and filled with an abundance of antique china and silver. Pictures by various friends and also a Constantin Guys and a Ghika hang on the walls. The doors and fireplace of the north room were painted by Dora Carrington in 1928 with pink, apricot and gray motives that are remarkably preserved: “I had no possessions then—l have a lot now, as you see—and Carrington offered to help by painting the doors," Rylands explains as he shows me around. The high recessed window, where we sit on a sofa to talk, looks out on the west view of King’s Chapel and Gibbs1 splendid building, the south front of Clare College and the glassy waters of the river Cam. On this sunny late-April day the avenues are lushly carpeted with daffodils and bluebells, and the stream dotted with varieties of duck. Now and again a punt glides past—a timeless scene.
Dadie (everyone calls him by his nickname) Rylands was born in 1902. He was a Scholar at Eton and at King ’s College, Cambridge, where he read classics and English literature. After graduation he worked for a few months at the Hogarth Press with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, who printed and published two volumes of his poetry. He then wrote his fellowship thesis, “Words and Poetry," also published by the Hogarth Press, and came back to King's as a director of studies. Over the years, he has held the offices of steward, lay dean and domus bursar.
George Rylands' life has been devoted to two passions — English literature and the theatre, especially Shakespeare ("my particular plot of ground"). A plethora of top producers and actors started with him as undergraduates: Michael Redgrave, Peter Hall (Director of the National Theatre), Trevor Nunn (Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company), John Barton (RSC), Ian McKellen (NT), Derek Jacobi, and others. Older stars like Sir John Gielgud and Dame Peggy Ashcroft have been directed by him and are among his close friends. Several of Britain s most celebrated actors state that Dadie taught them "to speak," and he has been responsible for the discovery of many talented writers—among them Rosamond Lehmann, whose first novel, Dusty Answer (1925), was published on his recommendation.
Over the years Dr. Rylands has lectured for the British Council in Europe, published many essays and reviews in leading literary publications, and has given frequent broadcasts. But it is above all as a lecturer, tutor, and mentor that he is remembered and loved by generations of students, many of whom have since achieved distinction in the literary and media worlds. Among his pupils Dadie remembers the editor of The Paris Review, George Plimpton, with special affection as being “original, different from anybody else, and very jolly!” All speak of his infectious enthusiasm and passionate advocacy of his favorite books and plays.
Rylands was honored by Cambridge University with a Doctorate of Literature in 1976. In 1987 he became a Companion of Honour—a prestigious title which is a personal gift of Her Majesty the Queen.
This interview took place at Dr. Rylands' rooms, in King's College, Cambridge, in the spring and summer of 1987.
— Shusha Guppy
Let us begin at the very beginning of your life: where were you born and brought up?
I was born in a village in Gloucestershire, and I was taught first at home, by a village schoolmistress —a very gifted woman. At eight I was sent to Dorset, where my mother’s sister and her husband had started a preparatory school. My uncle had been a master at Marlborough, and the prep school they set up became very successful. They had a daughter who was two years older than I and, being a girl, much more advanced. We were deeply devoted to one another and my education owed much to her—and my happiness. As you know, she became a famous historical novelist and biographer: Hester Chapman.
From the prep school you went to Eton; were you equally happy there?
It was not a happy period, being during the First World War, and in college we were rather starved and ill. Then my older brother was killed flying, just before the war ended, which broke my mother’s heart. But I was wonderfully taught, particularly by George Littleton, who was absolutely marvellous. He taught me all I know about English literature, and I loved him. He found an eager response in me. Have you read his correspondence with Rupert Hart-Davies? There are five volumes of it and well worth reading. What was lucky was that I had got a scholarship, which meant that I could be educated for eight dollars a term. This was wonderful for my parents, who didn’t have much money. But of course they had to pay for a top hat and tail coat and that sort of thing.
After Eton you came to Cambridge, King’s College, in 1921. What was Cambridge like in those days?
It was a nice little old-fashioned country town attached to the university, with a market in the middle. There were no Woolworths and Boots and Marks & Spencer then. There were some bicycles and you could still see people getting about on horses. Now you would think you’re in Oxford Circus or Victoria Station!
Did they have buggies and horse-drawn taxis?
No. They were before I came up. There were horse-trams, which took people to the station, and there was a hansom cab outside the university church, but they were basically gone. Soon we had taxis. My mother drove a dogcart with two horses when I was a boy, but my father had a car in 1903, still rare in those days. By 1921 a lot of people had cars —they had even invented tanks by then! I’m so old that people ask me questions about before I was born. Once a woman asked me if I remembered the Crimean War and the Battle of Waterloo! People did the same with Diana Cooper, but she did give the impression that she had lived forever and ever—she became a historical object.
When you went down from Cambridge, you got a job in London with Virginia and Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press. How did that come about?
My godfather, the Earl of Moray, had left me $150 in his will, which was wonderful, because it enabled me to pay off my debts —I had got into the usual deep waters as an undergraduate. I also sold my Eton gold Shakespeare medal. I had met Virginia and Leonard Woolf while staying with John Maynard Keynes and his ballerina wife, Lydia Lopokova, in 1923. So in 1924 I went straight to the basement of Tavistock Square and was more or less left alone by V. and L. I was a sort of dogsbody, wrapping parcels, typesetting, and frequently covered in printer’s ink. Virginia and I used to stand side by side in the afternoon setting type. I was very happy.
Working at Hogarth Press, you published a volume of your own poetry . . .
Two volumes. It was a limited edition, typeset by Virginia and myself and very rare now. The second volume was published under the influence of dear Tom Eliot who said, “I’ll publish this in Criterion — which he was then editing—“if Virginia and Leonard don’t print it straight away.” But they did print it straight away!