On the need of reading reviews carefully

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 Honeywood File by H.B. Creswell. 

In his column of the 5th of December 1929, Bennett wrote of The Honeywood File (the purported correspondence between an architect and his client, builders, suppliers and town planners written during the construction of a country-house) “I repeat that as literature it is not great.” How I wish I had paid attention to that sentence before reading the book. Instead I had read this quote selected by Bennett,

Also I am afraid it will be impossible to enter the house by the front-door except, of course, by going up the front-stairs and down the back, which cannot be the intention….Moreover, the front-stairs could be used to reach the bedrooms only by going out by the back-door or by one of the windows, and in at the front door. I mention these matters in order to make clear why it is impossible for me to adopt your plan….)

These are the funniest sentences in what I had assumed was going to be an amusing account of the misunderstandings arising from the building of a house. In fact, the book is everything you need to know when building a house in late 1920s England rather than the knockabout slapstick I had thought it was going to be. I’m sure the author meant the reader to smile and even chuckle. I’m sure Bennett smiled as he read it and may even have chuckled as did its many readers. I say “many” as a second volume was published, The Honeywood Settlement. It was even made into a series on BBC radio in 1961 and 1982. I did not smile and chuckle and I will share the blame in equal parts between myself and Arnold Bennett.  Although he included this disclaimer, writing that the book was “…full of useful information, lightly conveyed, for everybody concerned with domestic architecture” he did write near the start of his review “…it is often very funny.” Memo to self: read the whole review before deciding to buy a book.

In the weeks up to the 5th of December, Bennett attended a performance of Journey’s End for holders of the V.C., examined the case of young woman charged with prostitution, discussed the reading habits of Yorkshire woollen-manufacturers and turned down the request for a loan of £150 to a complete stranger who, as he found out later, made a habit of such requests.

Enthralling – not interminable

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, André Maurois’ Ariel and Disraeli. 

Reading my copy of Andrew Mylett’s Arnold Bennett: The Evening Standard Years to remind myself why I had chosen these two books to read, I find I did so on the strength of the following sentence: “In my opinion his biographies of Shelley and Disraeli are models of what short biographies should be.” As it formed (a very small) part of a long review of MauroisAspects of Biography, Bennett wrote nothing more about these two books. So, why did I choose them? In part, I think, because Ariel was a book that was always there in my parents’ house and I was curious to read it and if I was to read it then why not Disraeli too? And I am glad I did as they are both wonderful reads.

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André Maurois – Wikimedia Commons

As always Bennett sums up the brilliance of books better than I ever could. In a column from the 13th of February 1930 (which I have not officially yet read as I am still in December 1929 but what use are rules unless they can be bent a little or indeed simply broken?) he wrote:

…I have heard men of letters dismiss the Disraeli, and the Shelley too, with one word: “Superficial!” Maurois is never superficial. On the contrary he is a most laborious toiler, with astonishing gifts of assimilation, order, proportion, clarity, impartiality, characterisation, graphic descriptions and interestingness. There is a sad, comic notion abroad among experts that what is enthralling to read cannot really be sound. Had Maurois been dull, he would have been better received by some of our high-brows of interminable biography. But the unfortunate man is incapable of being dull.

The copy of Ariel came with a pre-war London Buses bookmark – which is just the audience Bennett wanted: the man or woman on a London omnibus-

Enthralling: that’s the word. Ariel, with its litany of suicides and infant mortality, is not a light read. Shelley’s behaviour seems to be quickly excused by being too honest to prosper in a dishonest world. Every woman he loved, by God, he loved fully – at the time. Mary, on the other hand, is, towards the end of his short life, bordering on becoming a drudge when perhaps she just wanted a home and children who didn’t die. However it’s hard not to envy those who, when bored, cross the Channel in a storm, head for Paris, buy a mule and cross war-torn France to a castle in Switzerland and when they find out the stove isn’t working, turn around and head back. Shelley couldn’t have been more than 22 which means that Mary was 17 and her step-sister Clare Clairmont was a year younger when they passed the summer of 1814 walking behind a mule who was too lame to carry even one of them. This, more than any examination of Shelley’s poetry or even a mention of Frankenstein, is the detail with which Maurois fills Ariel . I do hope it was the detail which Bennett used to beat the high-brows of interminable biography.

To look at what Bennett was up to outside of writing, I’ve taken his mention of Ariel and Disraeli in his column of the 11th of April, 1929 as my key date. I see from his journal that on the 10th of April he was in the resort of Antibes where his car smashed into the back of another, destroying its petrol tank and upsetting its German occupants. Fearing the arrival of the police, Bennett made extravagant promises to the French chauffeur of the damaged car and then left it in the hands of his insurance company.

 

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