Matthew Arnold: Secret Agent

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. I am currently reading Matthew Arnold’s Essays. It’s taking longer than expected so rather than post nothing I have come up with this. 

In 1858, after seven years of marriage, Matthew Arnold moved into what was then called a small house in Chester Square, London. It would now be called “worth a million pounds.” Still a relatively new housing development when Matthew Arnold moved in, it had up to the 1820s been an area of lagoons and the haunt of footpads and robbers. Lagoons, I always feel, are the British equivalent of Indian graveyards (on which American middle class families insist on building their homes – always with dire results). It would be pleasing to think of the heavily side-whiskered Arnold doing combat with a resurrected Grendel or indeed aliens emerging from his cellars. His ability to quote widely and wittily in Latin and Greek would doubtless come in useful. “Sic semper tyrannis” he would mutter as he empties his Beaumont Adams revolver into the quivering tentacles of the alien leader. Half way to Chelsea there was even a pub appropriately called The Monster, which was reached via a cabbage patch.

If not a fighter of monsters and aliens, why not a private detective? As an  inspector of schools for thirty five years, he was noted as knowing more about the timetables, stations and trains of England than most men. What better opportunity for the solving of crimes the length and breadth of the country (especially those involving trains)? He could once more empty his trusty Beaumont Adams revolver into the chest of Randolph Churchill as he attempts to bundle Queen Victoria onto the Dover train, the first step in his mad plan to make her Empress of his African Empire; or arrest John Ruskin as he smuggles Turner’s smutty pictures to Paris on the ferry train to Folkestone. In his book Portraits of the Seventies, George Russell speaks warmly of the dinners at Arnold’s house in Chester Square. Where better to share his adventures with his friends and companions George Buckle, Herbert Paul and George Augustus as they drink their port?

Not quite Flashman nor the current on-line comic adventures of Babbington and Lovelace, but it would be nice to think there would be a market for a nineteenth century crime-solving/monster-slaughtering Oxford Professor of Poetry with impressive side-whiskers. Some of the above is true. Much of it is not. There is certainly enough to horrify the ghost of one great and possibly neglected literary figure.

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  1. He could be the Marlow of his own world!

  2. I started writing this post with, as usual, half an idea of what I was going to write about. And, as usual, I am surprised by what ends up on screen. Without meaning to, I’ve ended up convincing myself that, yes, why shouldn’t Matthew Arnold join the ranks of international crime fighters, with pithy one-liners (in Latin) and a way with the ladies (well, maybe not. He was very happily married).

  3. I loved this, and feel you need to e-meet a friend of mine who writes about a similar alternative universe of Victorian/Edwardian figures with secret lives. I’ve sent your link to him, so we’ll see what happens next.

    • Thank you Kate. I’m just about to publish the post on Arnold’s Critical Essays and without any effort I find that he’s pacing the gun deck of HMS Warrior, Britain’s first ironclad warship. I would say that you couldn’t make it up but quite clearly you can.


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