Hermione Lee is one of the world’s foremost literary biographers, with highly reviewed works on
Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton.  She held the Goldsmiths' Chair of English Literature and was
the first woman Fellow of New College at the University of Oxford.  On October 1st, she will become
President of Wolfson College, Oxford. Her husband,  John Barnard, is Emeritus Professor of
Literature at the University of Leeds.
ERNEST HOFER
remembered by HERMIONE LEE, with JOHN BARNARD
August 2008

Ernest was our Cupid. We met on the Trinity Summer School in 1975. John had been teaching on
the Summer School since 1967, from its early days in St. Hilda’s, and I taught on it in the mid-70s,
the time when my UMass students were telling me to read The Golden Notebook as it would change
my life, the time when England’s hottest summer for many years, in 1976, was bleaching the lawns
of Trinity to a yellowish-white. Ernest never ceased to remind us, rightly, that it was he who had
brought us together and he who spotted our talents. We were a part of that amazing network he
created for over half a century in England, which was his intellectual empire, his social playground
and the home of so many of his friendships, friendships for which he had such a remarkable gift.

After we heard the absurd news that Ernest had died - absurd because he was clearly meant to live
for ever, and we simply couldn’t accept the fact, and still can’t, that we won’t be picking up the
phone at any moment to hear that gravelly, garrulous, confiding voice and that wicked laugh - we
started to reminisce about the Summer School. Apart from our private romantic memories - well, we
thought they were private, except that Ernest clearly knew all about them - what we called to mind
most was the extraordinary stream of talents Ernest cajoled into the programme. John remembers
the early days, when Ernest’s ambitions knew no bounds. He lured literary stars like John Carey,
Alistair Fowler, Elizabeth Mavor, and Christopher Ricks.  One of the striking things about Ernest’s
reign was the way he kept these tutors coming back and back - not just old faithfuls, but later
regulars like Jenny Newman and David Fairer. And he was not shy of giving the sack to the odd
uppity superstar. He was very quick to see the particular talents - and weaknesses - of the people
he’d hired

As everyone who has worked with him knows, he kept an eagle eye on every detail of the
programme, from the behaviour of his tutors to the menus for the dinners and the quirks and
demands of every one of the students. In Trinity College itself, where he fitted the Summer School
into the college’s ancient fabric and traditions with the utmost skill, he was regarded as a cross
between an earthquake and a diplomat. And he was a brilliant strategist in the way he mixed work
and fun, so that the students would be pushed through rigorous classes and assessment by
demanding tutors, but also be taken off on trips to Stratford, and to play that arcane Oxfordshire
pub game Aunt Sally at country inns, and be entertained by talks by the James scholar Gorley-Putt
or the Royal Shakespeare Company composer, Guy Woolfenden.
      
Ernest seemed to know everyone who counted in England, to have seen all the most interesting art-
shows and been to all the most memorable operas and concerts, and to know the history of every
beautiful building in the land. He had a welcome everywhere, whether it was with the Clutton-Brocks
or the Falconers. When he came to stay with us, he had a bad habit of boasting about the latest
grand house or mansion or villa he’d just been visiting, which always made us feel he was
slumming it with us. But that was his tease. He was, in fact, a wonderful guest, interested in what
you were doing, full of stories and gossip, curling up in his new place like a big luxurious cat that
always finds the best cushion and can make itself at home anywhere. He was always up for an
adventure or a trip. As Edith Wharton said of Henry James when they were driving around together
through France: “Never was there a more admirable travelling companion...”
       
Our last meeting with Ernest, last year, was when he invited us to lunch at the Royal Automobile
Club in Pall Mall and we had a divine sunny summer lunch on the terrace, eating foix gras, drinking
champagne and waited on by attentive flunkeys. Ernest was in seventh heaven, surrounded by the
antique grandiosity of his Club, doing the honours, and affectionately delighted to be giving his old
friends a treat. But my most treasured memory of our old friend dates from thirty years ago, when
he came to visit us in John’s house on the moors in Yorkshire. We woke up in the morning to hear
peals of laughter coming from the children’s room at the end of the corridor. Ernest was sitting in
his dressing-gown, perched on an old wooden chair, chattering away to John’s children, who were
watching this fabulous apparition with enchanted amazement, as he entertained them with the
same kind of glee, style and wit he would have shown to a poet or a princess. They, and we, will not
look upon his kind again.
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(Read by Victoria Poletto)