What do we want? Two hours! When do we want them? Later!

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’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

As one of the most memorable but least literary of literary quotes, Arnold Bennett’s comment to his friend George Sturt that  ‘I believe I could fart sensation fiction now’ must be up there with the best of them. I do like to think James Joyce would have laughed. Virginia Woolf? A pursing of the lips perhaps. In his defence, and given his journalist background – he was a contributor to and editor of a women’s magazine – he was used to churning out words, the totals noted in the margin and shared with his friends. 100,000 words in six months was par for course; and after the success of The Old Wives’ Tale many of his subsequent books and plays were bestsellers, although now largely forgotten.

Literary Taste: How to Form It falls into his early farting phase of writing, when he was both trying to make a name for himself and earn some money. How to Live on 24 Hours was another book from this period, written quickly, selling well and, unlike many of his literary bestsellers, still hanging around today, out there in Internetland. I read it and, as always, have misunderstood it, forgetting his lengthy comments on how we waste time, which form much of the book, and concentrating, as always, on what is easy – namely, get up two hours before you usually do.

Developing this lack of understanding on my part I then downloaded the TimeLogger app and logged my time on my iPhone, looking for these extra two hours that I could use to write. And, of course, I made some graphs. 

Did you know that I spent 5.7% of my time on public transport, 0.4% of my time at the pictures and 2.3% looking at the amusing photos of animals on Buzzfeed? Well, unfortunately I do; and at the end of all this data logging I was none the wiser as to why I seemed unable to find time to get anything written, which was one of the reasons I had read the book in the first place.

There are two reasons for this, I believe (three if you count my capacity for laziness). Bennett writes of rising two hours before leaving for  work at nine o’clock. By then I have been at work for an hour having got up at a ridiculously early hour. Second, in his description of the return home he fails to mention picking up the dry cleaning, popping out for a pint of milk or leg of lamb, racking your brains as to what to cook for the family, conversation with various family members (face-to-face and via Skype) or simply staring into space as you get the mince out of your heid (as they would say in Glasgow); for the simple reason that he didn’t have to – a servant would have done it.

A British family in 1851 with an income of  £150 p.a. would have been in the position of being able to employ a servant. £150 would in 2012 be worth £12,000 (purchasing power as calculated by MeasuringWorth) so the economic and social level at which a family could employ a servant was much lower that one might think. By 1881 1.25 million British women were working as domestic servants. Despite the social changes that arose from the First World War, domestic servants were still common in British homes into the 1920s and 30s.

Virginia Woolf’s mother set up home in 1867 with a cook, housemaids, parlour maids, a nurse, nursemaid and a gardner. Virginia learned to cook but still found time to have screaming matches with the servants. Arnold Bennett’s cook drank, the chauffeur was suspected of being a German spy and another member of staff had to go off on an explosives course in London (it was World War One, after all). No wonder he moved into the Royal Yacht Club. He just wanted to get some peace. So, perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much about my missing two hours and lack of servants and try to fart sensation fiction instead.

Rome is about to fall. Alaric, king of the Visigoths, is at the gates. The blog on Gibbons’ Decline and Fall will soon be written.

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