For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, St. John Ervine’s novel The Wayward Man.
In the Evening Standard of the 22nd of December 1927, Bennett wrote of St. John Ervine’s novel The Wayward Man
I have heard that The Wayward Man is having a good sale. It ought to have a very good sale for a very long time. This book is a book….His spell is deliberate but powerful and sure.
Halfway through my Penguin edition of 1936, I found myself thinking “Bennett has sold me a dud.” Even Bennett, like honest Homer, nods. I thought of leaving it unread but I am glad I did not. True, there are moments in the life of its central character, the Ulster-born and prodigal son Robert Dunwoody, when trenchant social comment from the 1920s, a visit to a San Francisco brothel and a stint in a Mid-Western jail, seem either mawkish or racially insensitive. Ervine’s attempts to capture the intonations of all those from outwith his own Ulster folk (he was born in Belfast in 1883) grated. But I am glad I did not. I would have missed moments of lyricism and pointed but poignant judgements on life and its viscitudes. For example, Robert, having run off to sea instead of becoming the Presbyterian minister his mother wanted, looks up at the stars from the forecastle-head of his ship:
The whole constellation of heaven seemed to be laid bare before him…and Robert, for the first time in his life, felt that earth and sea and sky and stars and men were bound together. The Great Bear and the Little Bear and the Pleiades and the Heavenly Twins, the Hyades with Aldebarran, the Bull’s Eye, fiercely shining in the middle of them, and Orion and Mars and Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest in heaven, and the Great Nebula, star dust carelessly spilt, as if God the sower had suddenly emptied his sackful of stars and emptied them across the sky.
Or, as in this simple exchange between Robert and his mother at the end of the novel:
He pressed her hand in his. “I wish I could be the son you want me to be, but I can’t!”
“I know,” she said, “so I’ll content myself with the son you are…”
However, it was not for Robert’s sake that I finished the novel. As a character he does not change from childhood: wayward as a boy, he is equally wayward as a man. No, it is Brenda, who loved Robert as a wee girl and marries him as a woman, who captured my attention. She is obsessed with success and determined to live, as she puts it, as “nice people” do. She takes on Mrs. Dunwoody’s hardware stores and turns them into a successful chain throughout Ulster. She fights her corner like a demon and, scared of no one, destroys more than one male competitor. Robert shares in her success and shares her bed. But sex disgusts her and a child is out of the question. It is this, more than the dull bourgeois existence Robert struggles to embrace after his seafaring years, that leads to his betrayal of Brenda. Ervine was, and is, remembered as a successful playwright, and these scenes crackle with the charged emotions that can only come from the naked immediacy of theatre.
On the 4th of December, Bennett dined well at the Savoy with, among others, Noel Coward, Humbert Wolf, Ethel Mannin, Osbert Sitwell and Rebecca West. To have listened in to that lot…