Handy in a fight?

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, Bennett versus Woolf. 

On the 30th March 1931, the Western Daily Press (published in Bristol) reported the death of Arnold Bennett, one of the “greatest figures” in English Literature. He was, in the writer’s opinion, the “technical master” of the novel, in the same lineage as Fielding and Dickens. It includes the telling comment, “As a writer of life he shunned the intellectual standpoint and thereby created better works of art.”

Virginia Woolf would probably have agreed with one part of that final comment, although it is unlikely  she was a regular reader of the Western Daily Press. Checking the index for the essays in Virginia Woolf (edited by Harold Bloom) there is in fact no mention of Bristol, which raises the tantalising possibility that Virginia Woolf did not know where it was, far less subscribe to its newspaper. This is not as fanciful as it seems. Frank Swinnerton, Bennett’s friend, writing in Figures in the Foreground, spoke more than once of the importance of getting out once in a while and meeting people. Virginia Woolf, he felt of all the Bloomsbury group, was particularly bad at that. Whatever the truth of this, it would be fair to say that in any Geography test our man Bennett would have outscored Woolf, particularly anything arising from the catchment areas of the rivers Avon, Trent, Severn and Wye.

How different the history of English literature would have been had they chosen to fight out their diagreements via common entrance examinations in Geography. But they didn’t. According to Margaret Drabble in her biography of Arnold Bennett it was Woolf who took exception to a negative comment in an overall positive review of her book Jacob’s Room. It was Woolf who described Bennett as having a “…a shopkeeper’s view of literature.” A good choice of words on her part. Had she written that he had a solicitor’s view of literature (he had trained for a while to be a solicitor) we probably wouldn’t have known what she meant. He was, in the end, provincial.

Matthew Arnold had a lot to say about provincialism. Prose that was extravagant, he felt, was more than likely to be provincial, and far from his attic ideal. Newspapers carried much of the blame for the prevalence of provincialism in British culture, the brutalité des journaux anglais as he reminds us of how the French looked upon our press. English newspapers are not checked by coming into contact with any centre of intellect or urbanity, “rather they are stimulated by coming into contact with a provincial spirit.” The Western Daily Press for example.

It is tempting to look on all of the above as a wider metaphor for the persistent conflict between between highbrow and middlebrow culture, metropolitan and provincial attitudes in Britain. Given that contained within any understanding of the word “tempting” there has to be something of surrendering to it, then that is what I shall do. I shall surrender to it. All of the above is just that, a metaphor for the division between these two worlds. Should you wonder on which side your own tastes fall, ask yourself this: who would you rather have at your side on the fields of Agincourt, the gun deck of the Victory or the beaches at Dunkirk, a reader of the Western Daily Press or Virginia Woolf?

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  1. Hi, I’ve just read the majority of your blog and find it quite fascinating what you are trying to achieve with it. I don’t know much about Arnold Bennett, but came across him twice in the same week recently and then found “The Old Wives Tale” on my bookshelf! I love the graph btw. I probably would have put Virginia Wolf on the Y axis too. Good luck with it, I will enjoy follow your musings!

    • Like you I had never read anything by Bennett. It was coming across a reference to Literary Taste that made me want to find out more. He and his contemporaries such as Swinnerton and Hugh Walpole have been largely forgotten, although there is a new interest in the world of middlebrow literature. But their personalities, as they have come to us in literary biographies are, I feel, very attractive. The image of the gun deck of the Victory may be exaggerated, but I would much rather have had a bite of lunch with them than any of the modernists. Although, I would probably have made an exception for James Joyce.

  2. Virginia Woolf did know where Bristol was: in the 1906-1910 period she spent solo holidays in Wells, and visited Vanessa and Clive Bell in Bath freqeently during at least one summer. She also spent a lot of time in Cornwall: she did get around, in her salad days! But she was invariably unpleasant about everyone she met, in her letters, so you’re probably right in the spirit of what you say: even if she had visietd Bristol, she would have been rude about it.

  3. It was the fact that she even made fun of Bennett’s stammer that gave me pause for thought. This a man whose generosity had extended to helping fellow Bloomsberry Molly MacCarthy with her novel in 1917. I’m going to read Jakob’s Room and see what all the fuss was about. Also, thank you for the welcome lesson in the importance of getting my facts right rather than just going for the joke! As my dad would have said “You’ve maybe gone a bit too far there.”


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