Bennett’s Twelve Best Novels: all Russian

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.

053_bennett

The Bennett family home in Cobridge – pen drawing by Neville Malkin – source http://www.thepotteries.org

 

Arnold Bennett was born in 1867 in Hanley in the Potteries. He grew up in a modest house in that town but following his father’s qualification as a solicitor they moved in 1881 to Cobridge. His father had bought a building site there and built a house on it, costing £1,001 (calculated using the measure of historic standard of living as £90,180 in 2015). His adolescence then passed, if not in absolute luxury, then at least in relative luxury, compared to many people in nearby Stafford who earned, on average, 13/- 6d per week (£73.35 measured using the same historic standard of living). He, as we know, moved to London, driven, if not by a desire to escape poverty, then to escape the heavy hand of his father, especially when it came to money (Bennett would always be generous when it came to entertaining and travelling). He would return to the Potteries in some of his best novels, Anna of the Five Towns and The Old Wives’ Tale, for example. But he never regretted the personal, professional and cultural freedom he discovered first in London and then Paris. Throughout his life this theme of discovery of the new, achieved through self-improvement, would appear in his work. It was his self-help book, Literary Taste: How to Form It that inspired me to write this blog.

Nikolay_leskov_1872

Nikolai Leskov – inscribed photograph- source Wikipedia.

I do wonder sometimes which of his Books and Persons columns grew out of this set of beliefs. His column of the 10th of February 1927 would appear to be one of these. He may not have chosen the strapline, The Twelve Finest Novels All Russian, but that is the message he wanted to give. As a bestselling English author with a column in The Evening Standard he would have received books from every major UK publisher but, in this column, he chose instead to set the cat amongst the pigeons and praise the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, a contemporary of Tolstoy. Bennett did not discover Leskov for English readers, or indeed any Russian writer. Pushkin had been translated since the 1820s; Tolstoy from the early 1900s and Dostoevsky from the 1910s, largely through the pioneering work of Constance Garnett. But here he was, friend of H.G.Wells, Frank Harris and Lord Beaverbrook (owner of The Evening Standard), introducing Leskov’s short novel The Enchanted Wanderer:

I have been asserting for 20 years that the twelve finest novels are all Russian, and as time passes I find an increasing number of people to agree with me; I have little doubt that the number of people will continue to increase. So that I hope to be excused if I say, as I do say, that the appearance of an English translation of a novel by Lyeskov (or Leskov) is an important event in the literary year.

Of the novel itself he wrote:

The Enchanted Wanderer is a masterpiece – of humour, pathos, romance, and adventure. No novelist ever had a finer narrative gift  than Lyeskov. Even if he was not obviously a genius, his mere technical skill would make him remarkable in the evolution of the art of fiction.

Having read the novel, I cannot help but wonder what I missed. Enjoyable, insightful, at times charming, I could not shake the feeling that I was reading a “one-thing-after-another” novel. The central character, Ivan Flyagin, suffers much pain and heartache until he enters a monastery, as promised to God by his mother when a baby. And that’s about it. This is, however, by-the-by. Arnold Bennett, the local boy made good in the world, thought it worth praising to the readership 0f The Evening Standard. What did they make of it? In a post-war Britain, where Sir Malcolm Campbell had just set a new world land speed record of 174 m.p.h. and Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0 to win the F.A. Cup, did the readers of The Evening Standard buy the novel? Impossible to say, of course. But something did happen to sales of the novel, as can be seen in this Ngram measuring the number of times the title appeared in English:

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 21.02.25

Ngram showing mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer.

This reflects all mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer, such as in Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review of 1927 or The Book-of-the-Month Club news from 1950. But somewhere in that peak of 1927ish is Bennett’s review and I am sure it was good enough for readers of his column to go out and buy the novel. Like Bennett, they too may have looked for the new, and in a novel like this have seen an opportunity for self-improvement.

On the 9th of February, Bennett read of the death of his friend and novelist George Sturt, a now largely forgotten writer on English rural life; and on the 10th, Bennett finished reading Histoire de la Bienheureuse Fille Raton, a rather rude French novel.

 

The County of Roxburgh: tastemaker

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, the County of Roxburgh.

roxburgh4

Roxburgh, showing rail routes – source: happyhaggis.co.uk

Reading Bennett’s reviews from the Evening Standard (I’m using the collected edition, edited by Andrew Mylett – Arnold Bennett, The Evening Standard Years, ‘Books and Persons,’ 1926-1931) I am struck by the breadth of subjects on which he wrote. These are not book reviews per se. Rather they are the evidence of an inquiring mind with a pronounced literary bent. Lord Beaverbrook, owner of The Evening Standard and friend of Bennett, I am certain, was of the same opinion. I am equally sure he was hoping that by signing up Bennett, one of Britain’s most popular novelists, would only add to the newspaper’s prestige. Bennett characteristically referred to the articles as “book gossip.”

But what gossip! I’ve already referred to Bennett’s comments on the dearth of young novelists. But he also wrote on publishers who published unoriginal novels, the New School of writing (in which he included Virginia Woolf) and what he considered Thackeray’s cowardice. On the 7th of April 1927 his article on public libraries was published under the title How Libraries Can Form Public Taste: A Popular “County” Novelist. In it he writes of the post of county librarian being advertised by the County of Roxburgh in the Scottish Borders. He does question paying someone in such a post only £3 a week (worth £155 in 2014). He then goes on to add:

…public libraries and their librarians constitute a more important factor in the national life than we are apt in our unimaginativeness to suppose. If Blücher (with Wellington’s aid) won the battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton, we are entitled to say that the battle for sound literary taste must be won in the public libraries.

carnegiepubliclibrary

Carnegie Public Library in Ayr – source: southayrshirehistory.wordpress.com

In an age that has seen many councils decide that public libraries are no longer either affordable or necessary, his words hark back to the beginning of what was to be a period of expansion in the provision of public access to literature. I also wonder how many other critics spoke so forcefully at the time of the importance of libraries in the cultural life of Great Britain? Bennett was a wealthy man, but he was by nature a democrat who used his position as a bestselling author to encourage the creation of a public that read widely and critically.

He was also a social animal. On the 6th of April, he had lunch with Jane and H.G. Wells, dined with Lord Beaverbrook and then went to a house-warming party given by the leading British interior decorator Syrie Maugham!

 

Jew Süss by Lion Feuchtwanger

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. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. 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, Jew Süss by Lion Feuchtwanger. 

On the 13th of January 1927, under the heading A Fine Historical Novel by a German Author, Bennett concluded that week’s review with:

Jew Suss is a splendid story, but it is also a complete picture of a complex social organism from top to bottom. It entertains, it enthrals, and simultaneously it teaches, it enlarges the field of knowledge.

To which I can only add. “Aye, that.”

Feuchtwanger, Lion

Lion Feuchtwanger britannica.com

The novel, written by Lion Feuchtwanger, was based on the events that took place in the German state of Württemberg in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Joseph Süß Oppenheimer was a Jewish banker who bankrolled Duke Karl Alexander, the state’s ruler; rose to dizzying heights of power and, as befits a morality tale, crashed to earth when his luck ran out.

The cover of the German edition wikipedia.org

 

It’s not always an easy read. The word “Jew” is used, in the mouths of the majority of the people in the novel, as a term of abuse. The range of characters is wide; to recognise them as they appear at different points in the novel is not easy. Feuchtwanger pulls no punches when discussing Imperial politics of the period or bringing into the weft of the novel some of the principal tenets of the Kabbalah.  But it is worth it, for it is a roller coaster of a read. Rarely have I read a book that has gripped me so strongly. I am deeply sentimental but this is one of the few books that has made me cry.

The Nazis, of course, burnt his books.

On the 11th of January, Bennet walked to the Carlton Hotel  to meet Colonel Fitzhugh Minnegerode, representative of New York Times, who told him an amusing anecdote about Gabrielle D’Annunzio. Earlier that week  he signed over the rights to all his performed plays to his partner Dorothy Cheston. The weather, I’m sure to the surprise of no one , was unsettled.

My apologies to the gap in entries. It resulted as a combination of the poor use of postcodes and worry over shelf space.

My American tragedy

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. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. 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, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreisler. 

The temperatures have finally dropped below 40ºC, and I can now sit down and write a new post without dripping sweat on the keyboard. Not that I have a great deal to write. It’s not often that I give up on a book but that’s what I did with Theodore Dreisler An American Tragedy. The warning signs were all there, if I had just bothered to read them in Bennett’s review:

I am not going to recommend An American Tragedy to all and sundry dilettante and plain people. It is of tremendous length. It is written abominably, by a man who evidently despises style, elegance, clarity, even grammar. Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know. Dreiser would sneer at Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer of some of the loveliest English ever printed.

For this and other reasons he is difficult to read. He makes no compromise with the reader. Indeed, to read Dreisler with profit you must take your coat off to it, you must go down on your knees to it, you must up hands and say “I surrender.” And Dreiser will spit on you for a start.

As an indication of just how reluctant I was to be spat on, I should point out that I read instead Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour.

Taylor wins on judges' ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

Taylor wins on judges’ ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

The review appeared in the Evening Standard of the 30th of December, 1926. It was the end of a year in which Bennett had set himself the target of 365,000 words and which, as he pointed out in a journal entry on the 20th of December, it was a target he had reached and would surpass. It was also the first Christmas organised by his partner Dorothy Cheston. Bennett had separated from his wife in 1921. Although separated his wife never agreed to a divorce but Dorothy changed her surname by deed-poll to Bennett. Their time together was relatively short  (he died in 1931) but happy. They had one daughter, Virginia.

 

 

 

Arnold Bennett’s plain words

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. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. 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, The Ruin by Edward Sackville-West. 

Edward Sackville-West Source: The National Portrait Gallery.

Arnold Bennett’s review of The Ruin by Edward Sackville-West appeared in the 25th of November edition of the Evening Standard (you can read a detailed review at the excellent Reading 1900-1950 site).  Under the heading Plain Words to Our Younger Novelists, he wrote:

He can sometimes produce emotional effects of beauty (also what is loosely termed ugliness) which she [the novelist Mary Borden, reviewed by Bennett in the same column] could not even begin to produce. I should say that he may one day count – though The Ruin is perhaps excessively jejune, and has many pages about nothing.

Book cover forThe Ruin. Source: amazon.com

Book cover forThe Ruin. Source: amazon.com

Bennett then commented:

I am very interested in young writers [Sackville-West was 25 and Bennett was 59] – and rather gloomy about them. Nor am I alone in my gloominess. I find, when conversation on the subject has grown frank and intimate, that the young themselves are gloomy about their writers. I know that the war killed about 50 per cent. of potential talents. But the other 50 per cent. promise too little, and have performed almost nothing so far.

This was still a post-war society (the war had ended 8 years before)  for whom the one million dead were not great-grandfathers but rather fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, husbands and wives. When it came to literature, for every Siegfried Sassoon returned to his family how many Isaac Rosenbergs  had been left on the battlefield? Bennett, who had worked for Lord Beaverbrook in the War Propaganda Bureau,  was clearly concerned that the next literary renewal, which thirty years before had been embodied in the works of H.G.Wells or more recently in those of E.M.Forster, simply would not happen.

But to-day?…The elders and their immediate successors (such as E.M.Forster and D.H.Lawrence) can and do, when up to their form, knock the stuffing out of the boys and girls.

Plain words indeed for the younger novelists. As for me, I rather enjoyed the high drama of rural life where just about everyone would have benefited from getting out a little bit more.

Turning to his journals, we can see that Bennett was involved with the rehearsals for production of his novel Riceyman Steps (now there’s a novel that could “knock the stuffing out of the boys and girls”). On the 20th of November he wrote of his visit to the Ambassadors Theatre:

We rehearsed until 3.5 p.m. and then ate a good snack of chicken, tongue, and salad and admirable claret, in [leading actor] Leon M. Lion’s dressing room.

On the 25th of November Dorothy Bennett, his partner, returned from the first performance and he wrote:

She arrived home shortly before 6, with a very gloomy account of it…the audience was chilled and not at all responsive; in short, that the thing was a failure.

The play ran for six matinee performances before closing.

 

 

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.

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