And did death proudly take them?

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. 

Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Photograph taken by Herbert Ponting on the Terra Nova Expedition.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Photograph taken by Herbert Ponting on the Terra Nova Expedition.

On the 8th of February 1913 readers of the Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette would have read on the back page:

The Central News says the Terra Nova [the ship that took Captain Scott and his Antarctic Expedition to the southern ice] has arrived more than a month earlier… in consequence of a serious calamity having overtaken the expedition. The exact nature and extent of the calamity is not yet known, but the Central News regrets to learn that it is of a grave character. Further details are awaited with the utmost anxiety.

By the 10th of February the Evening Telegraph, reminding its readers that:

The perils of such a journey as Scott’s are manifold. A slip down a crevasse…blizzard…cloudy weather.

put its report under the headline of All Perished. 

It was not until the 14th of February that the Luton Times and Advertiser was able to report in more detail that:

Captain Robert F. Scott, commander of the British Antarctic Expedition, has perished in the wastes of the Ross Barrier, together with four of his comrades, while struggling back from the South Pole…They were weakened by lack of food, and when they pitched their tent for the last time…Fuel for one hot meal and food for two days remained.

Thus in these six days the British public learned of the fate of Captain Scott’s Antarctic Expedition.

The hagiography was there from the beginning. The Luton Times and Advertiser noted that:

…when death seemed very near Captain Scott committed to his diary a last message to the British public. The message rings with the courage and fortitude of the man.

The personal cost too was highlighted. The Yorkshire Evening Post of the 10th of February, under the headlines “Mrs. Scott’s Sorrow – World-Wide Sympathy in Her Loss – Not Yet Heard the News,” reminded its readers that:

The sympathy of the nation will go out to Mrs. Scott, who left England last month for New Zealand, in the expectation of meeting her husband.

Adding:

She has not reached New Zealand, so she has not heard the news.

Perhaps with one eye on posterity, it included:

Geographers in this country have emphasised from the first that Captain Scott’s expedition was not intended merely as a dash to the Pole… The expedition comprised scientists who were expected to throw light upon different phenomena of the Antarctic…

How did the nation express its mourning for its national hero? On the 20th of February the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser informed its readers that the total of Captain Scott Fund was now £20,000, including donations from the King and Queen. Expressed in terms of comparative income value this would today be worth £9,378,000.

Captain Scott’s fame continued to grow, with notable peaks in the 1930s and 1950s (The Worst Journey in the World was republished by Penguin in 1937). Cue a Google Ngram:

Facts!

 

 

Somewhere in this splendid array of data is the talk given by the Rev. H. G. Johnson, and reported by the Portsmouth Evening News on the 24th of October 1938, to the Cosham Brotherhood on The Worst Journey in the World. He was quoted as saying, proudly I am sure:

We are members of the race that produced a Scott, a Wilson, a Bowers and an Evans.

Since then, Scott has bounced through a succession of cynical ages.

Growing up in an Edwardian age that distinguished between love and being in love, Apsley Cherry-Garrard as a man loved Scott, as a man, despite of and for all his faults. Compared to them, and their companions in the various base camps on that southern ice, we are indeed a sorry and sordid lot, obsessed with side-boobs, cellulite and sexting. What group of men could today could spend two years in uncomfortable isolation without swearing, talking about sex or slipping into such levels of irony that any enriching conversation becomes impossible? Damnit, where are the heroes? I plot a strong but lonely (1,0).

Arnold Bennett!

Next time, Hilaire Belloc’s The Path To Rome and G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography. 

 

 

 

Hello to all this

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Arnold Bennett, the Ministry of Information and Robert Graves.

Lord Beaverbrook, 1918 Source: www.warmuseum.ca

Lord Beaverbrook, 1918
Source: http://www.warmuseum.ca

In 1917 Arnold Bennett was invited to work in the Ministry of Information by Lord Beaverbrook. It is not clear what he did there as no records survived and Bennett was very discreet when writing about his job in his journals. We know that he worked hard and what he was working very hard at doing was making sure that everyone knew what utter bastards the Germans were.

First edition copy of Goodbye to All That. 1929.  Source: Wikipedia

First edition copy of Goodbye to All That. 1929.
Source: Wikipedia

Robert Graves, on the other hand, was trying not get killed by some of those Germans while serving in France as a young officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In 1929 his book Goodbye to All That was published which detailed many of his experiences while serving in the trenches. It was reviewed by Bennett in his column in The Evening Standard:

Goodbye to All That is a very good book, both picturesque and honest, and excellently written. Robert Graves is a fine poet – none better today, in my view. All poets write good prose, and he does.

Part of Bennett’s job in the Ministry of Information would have been to ensure that the core message of Britain Good, Germany Bad was reinforced in the world’s capitals. Not too difficult a job given the Germans’ propensity for sinking unprotected ships. In 1914 he had read the accounts of the rapid German advance through Belgium, a country that he admired and liked. He would have read too of the atrocities carried out by the German army against Belgian civilians, atrocities which Graves denied having ever taken place.

Where do we begin to unpick the ironies from this little encounter of two literary greats? On the one hand, Bennett, who only visited the front as an officially approved journalist and who ensured the official line was maintained, even in the dark days of Passchendaele in 1917 and the German spring offensive of 1918. And on the other, Graves, reviewed positively by Bennett, who had experienced at first hand life in the trenches but who laughed at the authenticity of the atrocity stories intended to bolster British resolve to see this terrible war through to the end. All the more ironic given that the atrocity stories were, in many, many cases, only too true.

Next time, we are off to the South Pole with Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.

“Great prose or not”

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, the statement, backed by facts, “famous writers have more readers.”

It has been a while since I crunched some numbers. The idea came this time from an article written by Mikhail Simkin in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics. Using the results of a blind test where readers were presented with anonymous excerpts from the novels of Charles Dickens and Edwin Bulwer-Lytton, Simkin showed that:

  • the results were on the level of random guessing – that is up against a giant panda using a specially adapted panda-friendly keyboard, you would in all likelihood lose.

He then argued that:

  • famous writers are different from their obscure colleagues because they have more readers – the corollary being that the quality of writing does not differentiate between them.

As you can imagine this kicked up a bit of a stooshie, which Simkin summarised in another article in the journal of the American Statistical Society, Significance.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

Simkin then went on to develop his argument using data from the Goodreads website. Looking at the top ratings given by readers to the works of Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton, he argued that given the proximity of average top ratings for both writers, once again, what differentiated them was solely the number of readers. All of which got to me  to thinking, what would a similar study show when looking at arch-cultural-rivals Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf. Funnily enough, it would look like this:

Watch those numbers stack up.

Which, when turned into a handy bar chart, looks like this:

The mighty bar chart

 

The results are very much in line with those that arose from the study carried out by Simkin, namely that:

  • the difference between the number of ratings for the two writers is noticeable: 2,725 – 91,010 for Virginia Woolf and 41 – 1,788 for Arnold Bennett;
  • the average listed rating is very close for both writers: 3.76 for Virginia Woolf and 3.77 for Arnold Bennett;
  •  Virginia Woolf’s advantage as regards 5 star ratings is small: Virginia Woolf’s average being 26.9% and Arnold Bennett’s being 23.8%,

and of course:

  • “…famous writers just have more readers.”

Objections to all of the above are, like the demons of the man from Gadara, legion. Not the least being, I did not carry out a blind test to distinguish extracts from the works of the two writers. But if nothing else, it has made me consider with a little more depth the validity of any notion of an accepted literary canon. I now have it in mind to repeat the same experiment with Joseph Conrad and H.G.Wells.

Coming up next, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

If you were wondering, I scored 8 out of 12 on the test. 

Note: I made corrections 23rd May 2014 to the title of the chart, Virginia Woolf’s average and range of ratings for Arnold Bennett following suggestions made by Mikhail Simkin.

 

The journey is the thing

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. 

The Morning Post of the 25th of October 1830, under the heading Interesting Voyage of Discovery, announced the arrival of:

His Majesty’s surveying-vessel Adventure…with the Beagle…from South America, where both vessels have been engaged nearly five years…in surveying the coasts from the River Plate on the East, round Cape Horn, to Chiloe on the West.

Sadly, the report went on to say, four officers and seven seaman died while on the voyage. It did not mention that the leader of the expedition Commander Pringle Stokes had committed suicide, thus giving Robert Fitzroy his command of the Beagle. 

Robert Fitzroys's map of Tierra del Fuego. Source: magnoliabox.com

Robert Fitzroys’s map of Tierra del Fuego. Source: magnoliabox.com

However, there were some passengers on board the Beagle who had joined the ship in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. As the Morning Post explained:

The Beagle has brought to England four natives of Tierra del Fuego…These Fuegians were taken prisoner during the time that the Beagle was employed on the S.W. coast of that country, in consequence of their tribe having stolen a boat…

Seeing that they had quickly settled into life on board the Beagle, Fitzroy decided to bring them to England, educate them (which meant converting them to Christianity) and then return them to Tierra del Fuego. Thus by improving their lot, the life of the tribe could be improved, and lifted up from its present condition, described by the Morning Post as:

…the lowest of mankind…

adding that they were:

…without a doubt, cannibals.

Fuegia, Jemmy and York. Three of the Fuegians brought back by Fitzroy. from his account of the journey Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle, at darwinonline.org

Fuegia, Jemmy and York. Three of the Fuegians brought back by Fitzroy. from his account of the journey Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle, at darwinonline.org

 

Fitzroy did indeed look after them. He organised lodgings for them, found a school which they could attend and called on the Church Missionary Society to help with their Christian education. Whatever else he thought of them, and he also believed them to be cannibals, he wrote of the need to vaccinate them:

I was, of course, anxious to protect the Fuegians, as far as possible, from the contagion of any of those disorders, sometimes prevalent, and which unhappily have so often proved fatal to the aboriginal natives of distant countries when brought to Europe…                                                             “Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle”

During the summer of 1831 King William IV asked to meet the Fuegians. The meeting was a success. The King, wrote Fitzroy:

…asked me so many sensible and thoroughly pertinent questions respecting the Fuegians and their country also relating to the survey in which I had myself been engaged…

Queen Adelaide went one further. She presented Fuegia with one of her own bonnets, the ring from her finger and a sum of money to buy clothes before she returned to Tierra del Fuego.

Darwin describes their return to Tierra del Fuego in The Voyage of the Beagle.

It was interesting to watch the conduct of the savages when we landed towards Jemmy Button: they immediately perceived the difference between him and ourselves…The old man addressed a long harangue to Jemmy, which it seems was to invite him to stay with them. But Jemmy understood very little of their language, and was, moreover, thoroughly ashamed of his own countrymen.

His own tribe welcomed Jemmy and the other Fuegians. With them was a Mr Matthews, a missionary who had been sent with them from England. His mission was a short one. Three weeks later, the Beagle returned to find that the members of the tribe had stolen everything and threatened Matthews – among the robbers was Jemmy’s own brother. Fitzroy decided to take Matthews with them. They returned for the final time in the March of the following year. Jemmy, naked except for a blanket, with his hair long and messy, was ashamed at first to meet with them. The sadness of their parting was very real as Jemmy has always been popular with the crew. Darwin wrote:

When Jemmy reached the shore, he lighted a signal fire, and the smoke curled up, bidding us a long and last farwell, as the ship stood her course into the open sea.

There is an epilogue. In October 1854 the schooner Allen Gardiner, paid for by the Patagonian Missionary Society, sailed for Tierra del Fuego, with the aim of spreading Christianity and also searching for Jemmy Button. Like previous missions it was not a success, not because of theft or murder, as in the case of the missionary Allen Gardner after whom the schooner was named, but through dissension between the schooner’s captain Parker Snow and, well, just about everyone else. But in the appropriately named Button Islet, attracted by the British colours raised by Parker Snow, two canoes approached the schooner.

I sang out to the natives interrogatively, “Jemmy Buttom? Jemmy Button? To my amazement and joy…an answer came from one of the four men in the canoe , “Yes, yes; Jam-mes Button. Jam-mes Button!”

Button Sound from the book A Two Year's Cruise off Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, Patagonia and in the River Plate. Source: archive.org.

Button Sound from the book A Two Year’s Cruise off Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, Patagonia and in the River Plate. Source: archive.org.

His English returned bit by bit. He asked to wear trousers in the presence of Parker Snow’s wife; when they sat down to eat he wanted to use cutlery; shown the captain’s library he asked for three books. Stepping on deck for the first time, he saluted Parker Snow which impressed the crew. Of this first meeting Parker Snow wrote:

..with his shaggy hair and begrimed countenance; I could not help assimilating him to some huge baboon dressed up for the occasion.

Which, I guess, says it all.

In the return visit six weeks later, over a hundred of the tribe came to greet the schooner. The tone of the encounter had changed. Jemmy’s brothers demanded gifts from Parker Snow while Jemmy chatted with the missionary on board the schooner. Parker Snow ordered the anchor raised. Jemmy’s wife called to him from the canoe. As the wind caught the sails the Fuegians on board returned to their canoes and the schooner turned to the open sea. Parker Snow wrote of Jemmy:

…the man of many hopes, of much talk, of great name in getting interest in the mission…yet none less a nude savage like his brethern.

It was never going to have a happy ending, was it?

But of literary taste, what can we say? I would say “Charlie, do you fancy a pint? ” And the crack, as they say in Oban, would be good. So, it’s a hearty (7,5) and set course for the open sea.

Har, me hearties!

Next time, the temperature drops as we head to the South Pole with Captain Scott, in The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

I am completely operational, and all my circuits are functioning perfectly.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week the Book Genome Project.

What would the DNA of a book look like? According to the Book Genome Project it would look like this for Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden: 

Pandora's Box, and why not?

How do they do this? Here’s what they say on their FAQs page:

Simply put, we trained the computers to read and look for elements of writing style and theme – though differently than a person would – and translate that into an opinion that is consistent across thousands and thousands of books.  In other words, each time the computer looks at a scene, it asks itself, “If I were human, how Dense (among others) would I rate this particular scene?”

Is this anything more than a misplaced metaphor? More than likely. Does that negate the project to measure, not the worth of a book or even its genre, but its structural elements? If this means rejecting the possibility of robots ever reading books I think we’d all agree the answer is a hearty no. 

Why?

In a word meta-study. Back to Trollope. There are eleven of his novels listed in the Book Genome Project. By converting the StoryDNA into a numerical value for each book, then we end up with a graph that looks like this:

Nice, isn't it?

Putting aside any objections – moral, literary, personal – what can we learn from the results? Well, money and family stand out as the two key themes in his work; in second rank, jury trialspolitics, social class and letter writing; coming up in third place extended familypolitical office, romance, time and secrets; and trotting along in fourth Catholic institutions and church services. Despite his love of hunting, all things equine come in at a poor 0.3. It would, of course, be easy to explain the importance of family and money in the light of Trollope’s own difficult childhood where the social leanings of his parents were not equalled by his father’s management of his farm. As it is easy, damnit, let’s go with it. 

Does the Book Genome Project tell us anything we don’t already know? Probably not. It just does it faster. With the results of Trollope’s meta-analysis, I feel I’ve got enough useful insight into his works to pass muster at a Trollope literary do. Of course, what the Book Genome Project can’t do  is tell me how good his books are. For that we still need the human touch. For now.

Enough of the theorising about dystopian futures. I promised you facts and facts you will have. The Voyage of the Beagle is now over, the specimens have been examined and a full report is being written for the Society of Travellers and Gentlefolk.

‘Journey all over the universe in a map…’

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, the Mindly application for the iPhone. 

Regular readers will know that I occasionally like to point out apps that might help throw new perspectives on novels and novelists. Or at least pass a happy hour when you know you should be working. The Mindly app meets both those requirements. It allows you to create mind maps on any subject, include images, build up sub-categories and impress your colleagues. It is, in a word, a stonker. Here’s one I made earlier:

Arnold Bennett mind map.

It is a work in progress, which is not to say I will go back and refine it. But, as someone averse to organising my thoughts in any way, it has made me think it might not be a bad idea. It allowed me, if nothing else, to see what it is that I regard as important in the life and work of Bennett. It also takes all the hard work out of the process, namely making it look neat. I do not know enough about the life and works of Virginia Woolf, but I would be intrigued to see a mind map with her name in the middle.

No graph is included only the assurance that books filled with facts are soon to be ordered.

Chance meeting? Not on your statistical nelly.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr

Lithograph of Wyndham Lewis by the artist. Source: the National Gallery

Lithograph of Wyndham Lewis by the artist. Source: the National Gallery

The Annuaire Statistique is a triumph of counting, if by “triumph” you mean counting on a massive scale, and I certainly do. The website http://www.economie.gouv.fr/ explains its role as:

L’Annuaire statistique de la France est une collection qui regroupe dans un seul volume les statistiques de différentes branches économiques et sociales puis plus tard, industrielles. Cette collection s’étend de 1878 à nos jours et elle est toujours vivante.

Which when put through Google Translate comes out as:

Statistical Yearbook of France is a collection that brings together in one volume statistics of various economic and social sectors and later, industrial. This collection spans from 1878 to the present day and is still alive.

In it you can discover that whereas in 1902 the High Pyrenees had 103 steam locomotives, the Seine Département had  a mighty 486, representing an impressive 5,710 horsepower.

There is an international aspect to the data as well. In 1901 Russia exported  raw materials to the worth of  149,682,000 francs to France and a measly 3,446,000 francs of manufactured goods; France, on the other hand, exported to Russia manufactured goods to the value of 9,989,000 francs. There is enough data to keep a graph nerd happy for a lifetime.

I have made one graph: German and British nationals resident in France, 1896-1921.

German and British nationals resident in France.

German and British nationals resident in France.

Even in 1921, three years after their last attempt to capture it in their spring offensive, there were still more Germans than British resident in Paris (there are no statistics for 1914-1918 but I imagine there were guy few Germans hingin aboot Paris). What were they all doing there? Most had come to work: they cleaned, they served meals, they cooked, some had their own businesses. Looked at in terms of gender, it is German women who formed the largest group, working, like their British counterparts, in the service industries and earning a lot less than the men. Another group, probably smaller and largely confined to German and British intellectuals, settled in Paris, attracted by its “otherness.” In the case of the German artists and intellectuals, they felt in equal parts repelled by the rapid growth and urbanisation of Berlin and attracted to the combination of modernity and tradition represented by Paris. In 1900 much of Paris still  lay within the city walls that had resisted the German siege of 1870; the scattered settlements outside the walls still had the appearance of small villages. But by 1900 you could also use the recently opened Paris metro. You could also, if you were British or German, and not working 12 hours a day scrubbing floors, have a lot more sex than in your own country. 

Wyndham Lewis and his literary creation Frederick Tarr, the hero of the novel, both fall into this last category. Tarr, like Lewis, is a painter in Paris who has to decide between the bourgeois Bertha Lunken and the intellectual, sexual and meat-obsessed Anastasya. Into this wanders the mad German artist Otto Kreisler who, unable to have sex, becomes even more mad. On any level it is an odd novel, given the content and the date of publication (begun before the First World War, Lewis revised it considerably during it and it was finally published in 1918). If you wish you may, after reading it, wish to draw the cultural threads together of German nationalism, Nietzschean philosophy and indeed, a prescient prediction of the rise of nazism. Or you may wish to cut those same threads, and argue that statistically Lewis was bound to meet Ida Vendel in Paris in 1906 just as Tarr was to meet Bertha in the novel, the former being the inspiration for the latter. And why not?

Be that as it may, it is stuffed to the free-loving gunnels with literary taste. A life-affirming (5,3) is therefore plotted.

How's them apples?

Next time, I shall follow the example of Mr.Gradgrind and read only “Fact, fact, fact.”

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,300 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 38 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Swing on Captain Swing

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village .

Mary Russell Mitford from the American 1949 edition. Source: Amazon.com

Mary Russell Mitford from the American 1949 edition. Source: Amazon.com

The Chelmsford Chronicle carried the following report from The Athenaeum on the 19th of January 1855:

After a long period of decline and helpless suffering, cheerfully borne, the author of “Our Village” died at Swallowfield Cottage, near Reading, on Wednesday last…

Mary Russell Mitford (1787 – 1855), it went on to say, had seen her cottage become:

…a place of pilgrimage to some of the highest and most accomplished persons in Europe.

Of these accomplished persons, the Dictionary of National Biography wrote that:

Charles Lamb declared that nothing so fresh and characteristic had appeared for a long time; Christopher North spoke of their ‘genuine rural spirit;’ Mrs. Hemans was cheered by them in sickness; Mrs. S. C. Hall acknowledges that they suggested her own ‘Sketches of Irish Character;’ Mrs. Browning called Miss Mitford ‘a sort of prose Crabbe in the sun;’ while Harriet Martineau looked upon her as the originator of the new style of ‘graphic description.’

The success of her village sketches, later published in five volumes between 1824 and 1832, was as immediate as it was dramatic. First published in 1819 in the Lady’s Magazine, this little-known journal saw its sales rise from 250 to 2,000.  Coachmen and post-boys pointed out to visitors to the village of Three Mile Cross in Berkshire (where Mary Russell Mitford lived for thirty years ) the locations of scenes from the stories, and parents named their children after those in the fictional village and also after the narrator’s pet greyhounds. The Scot’s Magazine of August 1825 may have identified the cause of this critical and popular success (most of the money she made was squandered by her spendthrift father, including the £20,000 she won in a lottery) when it wrote:

In tracing the likeness of its portraits, the reader need not go far from his own fireside, or the residence of his neighbours; he will find, we think, very accurate resemblance in those features which a little observation will enable him to trace among his friends or acquaintances.

Mary Russell Mitford's house at Three Mile Cross. Source: Flickr, user Leslie Dray.
Mary Russell Mitford’s house at Three Mile Cross. Source: Flickr, user Leslie Dray.

I’m not sure what George Moore,  James Dunk, James Pointer and George Holland would have recognised from the “portraits,” had they read any of the books. In December 1830 at the assize for the County of Kent they were all sentenced to seven years transportation. George Barrow, carpenter; John Ballard, labourer; John Tickner, tailor and John Beale, carpenter were also sentenced to seven years transportation. All had been found guilty of destroying threshing machines. They could, however, consider themselves lucky. Mr. Justice Bosanquet found Henry Packman and William Packman guilty of burning down a barn belonging to Mr. Wraight, and sentenced them to be hung, the sentence to be carried out the following week.

Wanted poster for suspected arsonists. Source: The National Archives.
Wanted poster for suspected arsonists. Source: The National Archives.

Throughout that summer and autumn of 1830, in a swathe that ran across the south of England, barns were burnt and threshing machines smashed.  Agricultural labourers, who had seen incomes drop after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, turned their resentment against the threshing machines which were now being used by  farmers to cut costs further, by doing away with their jobs. Letters were sent to local farmers, threatening that their threshing machine would be targeted if they did not get rid of them. The letters were signed “Captain Swing,” the notorious/invisible/mythical leader of the machine breakers.

A Captain Swing letter.  Source: The National Archives
A Captain Swing letter.
Source: The National Archives

The poor, the sad and the mad can be found in the stories in Our Village, but not a tailor or a carpenter who, sympathising with the landless labourers left jobless by the new technology, went out at night and set fire to hay ricks, maimed cattle and smashed threshing machines. Mary Russell Mitford speaks with pride when she writes:

We have the good fortune to live in an unenclosed parish, and may thank the wise obstinacy of two or three sturdy farmers, and the lucky unpopularity of a ranting madcap lord of the manor, for preserving the delicious green patches, the islets of wilderness amidst cultivation, which form, perhaps, the peculiar beauty of English scenery.

She was, however, writing of an English rural society that had long vanished by the time she was writing her portraits, when labourers had often been paid in kind, worked on their own land on the unenclosed commons, sat with the farmer and his family to eat and at the head of it all, patriarchal and with roots deep in the local soil, the local lord, “preserving…the islets of wilderness amidst cultivation.”

Would I be so petty as to deny the literary value of a book solely because it did not reflect accurately the experiences of the labouring poor? Of course I would. But the truth is, I do not know what to make of Our Village. There is no one to talk to about it, unless it is on a reading list somewhere for a university course. But Mary Russell Mitford wrote it to appeal to like-minded people who believed that an older truth could be found in the countryside; and in our GM world we have moved on so much further from threshing machines and threatening letters from Captain Swing. Like the machine breakers of 1830, she is out of joint with the times. A disappointing (2,9) will have to be plotted.

Make yourself at home Arnold.

Enough of the nineteenth century, next time I will be bang up to date with Wyndham Lewis’ 1918 novel Tarr. I shall do my level best not to call him an insufferable little shit.

Calculations in search of an explanation.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, just how much literary taste do I have? 

Time for a time out and ask the question, how much literary taste have I accumulated so far from reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett?  Below in the first chart is the raw data:

The graph!

This can be broadly understood as:

When I'm good I'm very, very good.

Turn it into a pie chart and it looks like this (ignoring any points that have fallen on the dotted line, giving them a value of zero):

Fancy some pie?

Thus giving me a literary taste rating of 59%. However, and I’m sure you saw that coming, what does Not Literary Taste mean? In this calculation it all seems very passive whereas you would think it should be taking a much more active role in determining my literary taste. It is not an absence of literary taste, rather it is a collection of data in its own right which demands to be considered.

So, if 100 equals an average literary taste then the books I read will provide variations, plus and minus, from that mean. This can be expressed as 100 + Literary Taste – Not Literary Taste, in this case (100+59)-41, giving me a result of 118. Thus, according to this calculation, my literary taste is 18 points above the mean. Which, to me at least, sounds better than a literary taste reading of 59%.

All of the above assumes every coordinate is of equal value, i.e. 1. But, and I’m sure you saw that coming too, the position of the coordinate in relation to the dotted line is an indication of the strength, or otherwise, of the literary taste given to me through the reading of a book. Should that not be reflected in any calculation? For example, good coordinates nearer the dotted line should have lesser value than those further away, i.e. the closer to Not Literary Taste the less impact the book has had on me, and the reverse for bad coordinates, as in:

Now for the big sums.

Weighted like this, the coordinates now give a pie chart which looks like this:

Damn, that's good!Using the same weighted data, I come out with a literary taste 84 points above the mean. All of which seems to point out previously unknown depths to my literary taste, and which would doubtless come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. I know what you are going to say. Literary taste is composed of a huge range of ideas, beliefs, prejudices, all of which in turn draw on historical contexts, class backgrounds, that it is pointless to quantify such a nebulous and subjective concept. To that objection I say that we live in a age of wonder and change, where technology strides across the world like a behemoth. It is only a matter of time before someone develops an app for the iPhone.

Meanwhile, I will take refuge in the bucolic idyll of Mary Russell Mitford’s Village Walks and plant a coordinate in the graph once I have read it.

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