Spot the difference

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, telling the difference between Lytton Strachey and Hugh Walpole.

I read Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians a couple of years ago. Up to then all that I knew of Lytton Strachey I had learned from the film Carrington. From somewhere I had come across his reply to the question as to what would he do if he saw a German soldier trying to rape his sister – he was conscientious objector in the First World War – “I would try and come between them.” He was therefore a personality and Eminent Victorians was one of those books I felt I should read. But as I read his description of Florence Nightingale’s obsession with windows (open or closed, she was, he wrote, immune to good advice as to why the opposite was better medical practice); his criticism of Cardinal Manning for being, well, Cardinal Manning; General Gordon’s decision to listen to God rather than Gladstone  and Thomas Arnold’s introduction of prefects to Rugby with all that entailed for the more sensitive pupils, I wondered why I felt uneasy. Having now read Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, I have the answer. Lytton Strachey was not Hugh Walpole.

Frank Swinnerton (novelist and critic: 1884 – 1982) devoted a chapter to Hugh Walpole in his literary autobiography Figures in the Foreground. Walpole was, he wrote, “…a very complex character, impulsive, loyal, affectionate, laughing, but at the same time aware of the advantages of publicity and tormented by conscience, bad dreams, ambition, schoolgirlish spitefulness, and an incurable habit of self-protective secrecy, or dissimulation.” Swinnerton’s comments on Strachey are more guarded but of Eminent Victorians he wrote “…he [Strachey] carefully chose incidents in the lives of four eminent Victorians and quotations from what they had said, with the object of staining an entire age.” Bloomsbury, Swinnerton declared, he admired but did not respect; its laughter he wrote “was always salted with derision” and Strachey was the chief exponent of the Bloomsbury spirit. They were all terrible gossips, both Bloomsbury and non-Bloomsbury. Of their gossip, it is Walpole’s I would have chosen to listen to. He gossiped because he was a gossip. Strachey gossiped because he was cruel.

“We must start with the man in order to do justice to the work.” That’s what the German classical philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (1848 – 1931) wrote in his essay to celebrate the bimillenary  anniversary of the birth of the Roman poet Virgil. It would be easy to say that I’m just trying to look clever by using this quote. And, given that it is easy, it should, I agree, be said. But the words are written. A man with an impressive name, who lived a long time ago, said something that supports my argument. Is there more to be said? Well, a little. Hugh Walpole enjoyed being famous and rich from writing best-selling books. Lytton Strachey, in the words of Swinnerton, to amuse himself, sought to make “ardent supporters of the Christian virtues laughable,” doing it all “…with deliberate malice.” Hugh Walpole, famous now for the number of websites which remind us that he is no longer read, is of the two the much more attractive personality. It is his books I would look forward to reading, not being the kind of person who now enjoys the malice of another.

Next, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill. The first signs are very positive and I look forward to the accumulation of a great deal of literary taste.

Answers. 1. The glasses. Hugh Walpole, the vainer of the two, is wearing rimless ones. Lytton Strachey, always keen to draw attention to his physical weaknesses, wears rimmed ones. 2. The hair. Hugh Walpole, worried that he will not be regarded as an intellectual, brushes it back, exposing his high forehead. Lytton Strachey has no such insecurities and combs it to one side. 3. The tie pin. Hugh Walpole, keen to show his wealth and status, wears one. Lytton Strachey does not. 4. The pocket handkerchief. Hugh Walpole, for whom personal hygiene and being well-dressed were important, has one. Lytton Strachey scorns all such pomposity. 5. The book. Hugh Walpole does not have one. He wishes to attract a wide range of admirers by not appearing too intellectual. Lytton Strachey, on the other hand, by turning away from the viewer and reading his book, makes clear his disdain for all things non-literary.

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  1. Not sure I completely follow everything you’ve written – but I can appreciate how nicely you’ve written it (as usual!)

  2. You’re right and apologies for not writing more clearly. A friend wrote to me to say that Arnold Matthew Secret Agent made his head spin! The irony is that what I wanted to say was very simple: the older I get the more I want to read well-written stories which entertain as much as inform. As a young man it was the opposite that I wanted. Next time, I promise, to write clearly and stop trying to show off.

  3. I’m going to have to read EV again now (it’s been 20 years or more), and Walpole too. Excellent stuff, very read-on-inspiring.

  4. I’m going to have to read EV now (it’s been 20 years at least), and read more Walpole. I’ve missed him in my early 20thC reading, unaccountably: a serious omission, I now see!

  5. It was odd comparing the two, Walpole and Strachey. For all that he has fallen out of fashion, Walpole’s prose was much more modern than Strachey’s, which was highly stylised and jarred these modern ears. Let me know how you get on if you read any of Walpole.


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