A warning from history

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 Triumph of Youth by Jacob Wassermann.

Jakob Wassermann

Jakob Wassermann photographed by Grete Kolliner. In the public domain

On the 6th of September 1928, Arnold Bennet wrote in his Books and Persons column in  The Evening Standard that Jacob Wassermann’s historical novel The Triumph of Youth was “…a remarkable book” and that as he read it his admiration continued to grow. Bennett went on to say a lot things about it. In fact, he dedicated the whole column to a review of the novel, noting at the start that he had received it the week after he had written about the “relative inferiority of historical novels.” Despite his enjoyment at reading the novel, he added in his column of the 6th:

The book has none of the characteristic defects of the historical novel, and so I am rather confounded.

Why was he confounded? In his comments of the week before (which as he pointed out “…caused a certain amount of protest” adding “They were intended to do so”) he had written:

In my view the first rate-rate historical novel conceived on an extensive scale has yet to be written.

Arnold knew why:

Truth to human nature is the chief lack in historical fiction. The majority of historical novels are no nearer to human nature than, say, Wagner’s Ring. There is more truth in one pretty good novel of modern life than in a whole year’s output of historical swashbuckling, hair-tearing, fustian eloquence, hissing crime and deathless passion.

(Naomi Mitcheson, however, was a notable exception.)

He ended with a series of questions:

Why should even the better historical novelists be content to imitate imitations of imitations of imitations, whereas the better novelists of modern life go straight to life. Was human nature in the periods which we call historical utterly different from modern human nature. It was not. It was only slightly different. I suggest that some young author not yet sure of his path should look into this affair.

Arnold was almost wholly prescient in his call to arms. Jacob Wassermann was in his fifties when he wrote The Triumph of Youth, a tale of heresy, the power of storytelling and dysfunctional families in the Holy Roman Empire of the seventeenth century. However, it was clear from his review that Arnold felt, if a little surprised at its promptness, that his question had been answered.

What particularly and astonishingly satisfies me in this book is its atmosphere of naturalness. Everything is terrible, but nothing is forced, and beauty disengages itself from the asphyxiating horror. The people are not aware that they are living in the dark age. They hate their age: they are unhappy and unfortunate in it: but their age is as ordinary to them as ours to us. They have no idea that any other age could be different from theirs. Herein is the supreme excellence of a historical fiction. Jacob Wasserman is indeed an uncommon fellow. He has at once imagination, insight, a fine sense of form and marked dramatic power.

Once in power, the Nazis burned his books and Wassermann died of a heart attack in 1934.

The Triumph of Youth

I’ve let Arnold do the talking this week and rightly so, I feel. I will only add that I too enjoyed the book and would, if only to that distant shore, thank Arnold for introducing me to another German author of note (the other being Lion Feuchtwanger ) Both men were of Jewish descent and both centred their writing on the dilemmas we create or have thrust upon us and, in those years after the Great War, Arnold Bennett too should be recognised as “an uncommon fellow,” open to literature that came from outside of Britain.

On the 6th of September, Bennett was in Annecy in south eastern France with his partner Dorothy. On Noel Coward’s recommendation they visited the village of Duingt and, noting its lack of sunlight, concluded that “Noel must have been there in love, some hot August.”

From one writer to another

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, A Writer’s Notes on his Trade by C. E. Montague. 

On the 13th of March 1930, Arnold Bennett wrote of A Writer’s Notes on his Trade:

It is a very good book. Some chapter-titles will give a fair notion of its contents: “Three ways of saying things,” “Easy reading hard writing.” “Too true to be good,” “Doing without workmanship,” “A living language.” all professional writers, and the innumerable legion of amateur writers, will immediately be attracted by these subjects, which Montague treats with love, ingenuity, knowledge, and wisdom. And my conviction is that a large proportion of the non-writing public would be attracted by them. I have no sympathy with the too prevalent writer’s tendency to despise the non-writing public.

It is a very good book, written by someone on the same wavelength as Bennett and capable, like Bennett of composing sentences as elegant as they are witty. Writing of the “tickled” – those that may never have been great students but enjoyed what they read – and the “untickled” – the studious but also unmoved by what they read – he commented:

The untickled may have won any number of scholarships and first classes but before they are thirty they are as dead to what they read in their youth as they are to the trousers in which they read it.

Only the writer confident in himself and free from the fashions of the moment can write like this. What may seem a throw-away line actually contains an important truth which we, if we stop and think, can recognise too.

C. E. Montague from the IWM Lives of the First World War

C. E. Montague from the IWM Lives of the First World War

Is the book relevant today? Would anyone wanting to be a writer gain anything from it? Would an established writer up their game? Or is it now only of interest to the literary historian (if indeed such a thing exists.) I wish so much to say yes and thus increase my sense of ownership over the book (again, if such a thing exists.) But it does have something to say to us all: that writing well on a subject you love and of which you know possibly more than the person next to you will always result in something both personal and, at the same time, approaching the timeless.

As far as I know there is no Bennett’s journal for 1930. Instead I have these reports from the Glasgow Herald  from the 13th of March: Shelley’s Lost Letters to Harriet by Leslie Hotson, reviewed in the paper’s Literature of Today, had much that astonished; the Mid-Scotland Ship Canal, to join the Forth with the Clyde, was recommended by the Parliamentary Bills Committee of the Glasgow Corporation as worthy of investigation by the government and from the Paris Letter column in Women’s Topics a return to femininity was noted and the comment made that “…as always happens in these matters, hats are following the lead of the dresses.”

Frank Swinnerton: four novels

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, four novels by Frank Swinnerton. 

During my absence from this blog I continued to to read as often, if not as widely, as possible. I feel most comfortable in the company of those writers who have already made that Stygian crossing and hopefully are resting in the Elysian Fields. One of these writers I wanted to get to know better was Frank Swinnerton (1884-1982), a successful author and close friend of Arnold Bennett.

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I chose four of his novels: Nocturne (1917), A Woman in Sunshine (1944), Death of a Highbrow (1961) and Rosalind Passes (1973.) The first I chose because it is regarded as his most famous and caught the interest of other established writers such as H. G. Wells and Bennett himself; Death of a Highbrow because I had seen it mentioned elsewhere on the Internet and the remaining two because they came in the mid-point and at end of his long career as a writer. Why did I choose him? From simple curiosity given his links to Bennett; having enjoyed a volume of his biography Figures in the Foreground, it seemed natural to want to read something of his fiction and, I have to admit, from hoping I might “rediscover” a writer worthy of republication by, for example, Persephone Books or the Handheld Press.

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Was any of the above worth it? It depends on which reason I chose to read them. If from curiosity then I have filled in a gap in my knowledge of popular British literature. Like Bennett, his scale is human and the fragile nature of our egos that marks so much of our lives. Mistakes are made; young lives are ended too soon; affairs are undertaken; values are held onto; other roads less-less travelled are chosen and in the end little of it makes any great impact. There is no attempt to explore new literary forms or marshal literature to any ideology.

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If I look honestly at my half-formed but no less real desire to “rediscover” a popular writer from the twentieth-century then I’m afraid the results are not so clear. There has been a great deal written about Nocturne. All that I can add is that it is a novel with equal parts of charm and insight and has two strong female voices. I’m sure it will continue to be reprinted at intervals in the future.

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Death of a Highbrow deserves more attention as an example of post-war fiction which looks at the personal impact of a choice to work in  highbrow literature based on the respectability which it will afford. It is the most “modern” of the novels I chose, reminding me at times of Herman Broch’s The Death of  Virgil, in its theme, shifting perspectives and passages that at times resemble streams of consciousness. Is it worthy of a reprint with a concise introduction to place it in its literary, social and cultural context? I simply do not know.

Frank Arthur Swinnerton - source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43576934

Frank Arthur Swinnerton – Source Wikipedia.

As for the other two, the characters speak their lines convincingly, reminding us that they are our reflections and leave a trace of memory after they have gone. Swinnerton lived by his writing, publishing a new book every year or so and can be forgiven for nodding at times. There may be others which I did not read and which deserve our praise.

Am I disappointed? Slightly, but more in myself than in anything I read. Like any writer, Frank Swinnerton deserved, as his friend Arnold Bennet wrote in one of his Books and Persons columns in The Evening Standard, to be read while I examined not only the book but also my reactions to it. I did not read them with an open mind and therefore possibly missed that chance to be simply entertained which is no mean end for any novel.

Tales from the South Seas

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.

In The Evening Standard of the 23rd of June 1927, Bennett’s review of Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot was published. He described it as:

A fantastical, moral, philosophical tale of the South Seas. Original and rightly malicious humour. A sharp, surprising wit. A coherent beginning, and a coherent end. Some authentic pathos, but a lack of power. It is a book of which every page has definite quality, but which considered as a whole, is unsatisfying.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner, from the National Portrait Gallery

As always with Bennett, I would both agree and disagree. There is something in what he says about the beginning and the end; in the middle I felt as if I had to make an extra effort to turn the page. But it was worth it, that is if you define enjoying a book by feeling your eyes moisten and chin quiver while reading the final pages. Here is where I feel Bennett missed an opportunity. In this tale of an English missionary to a fictional South Sea island who realises that the one convert he succeeds in making is actually having him on, Warner never loses her ability or desire to to describe people at both their most ridiculous and most wonderfully human. Hence, the moist eyes. We are noble in our self-delusion and even more noble in our recognition of it.

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First page of Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, from http://www.coxandbudge.co.uk/

On the 23rd of June, Bennett noted in his journal that T.S.Eliot came to tea and arrived very late, despite assuring Bennett that he would not. They talked about books and theatres. Later that evening, he dined at the Other Club (a political dining club set up in part by Winston Churchill) and chatted with Maynard Keynes: “very agreeable and rather brilliant.”

Like Bennett, I had read Warner’s first novel, Lolly Willowes before reading Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. Bennett had read the praise for it before he read the novel and was disappointed. I had not read the praise and I was not disappointed, although I still felt that extra effort to turn the middle pages. This is neither here nor there. But she was a successful writer (Lolly Willowes was the first Book of the Month choice in the U.S.A.) and like many successful writers from that period faded somewhat from view. She was not forgotten but she was neglected. She seemed to have no axe to grind (although her her depiction of Lolly Willowes would justifiably give her the label of feminist) and I sometimes wonder if it is the absence of axe-grinding that determines whether an author survives the passing of the years.

 

My American tragedy

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. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. 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, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreisler. 

The temperatures have finally dropped below 40ºC, and I can now sit down and write a new post without dripping sweat on the keyboard. Not that I have a great deal to write. It’s not often that I give up on a book but that’s what I did with Theodore Dreisler An American Tragedy. The warning signs were all there, if I had just bothered to read them in Bennett’s review:

I am not going to recommend An American Tragedy to all and sundry dilettante and plain people. It is of tremendous length. It is written abominably, by a man who evidently despises style, elegance, clarity, even grammar. Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know. Dreiser would sneer at Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer of some of the loveliest English ever printed.

For this and other reasons he is difficult to read. He makes no compromise with the reader. Indeed, to read Dreisler with profit you must take your coat off to it, you must go down on your knees to it, you must up hands and say “I surrender.” And Dreiser will spit on you for a start.

As an indication of just how reluctant I was to be spat on, I should point out that I read instead Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour.

Taylor wins on judges' ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

Taylor wins on judges’ ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

The review appeared in the Evening Standard of the 30th of December, 1926. It was the end of a year in which Bennett had set himself the target of 365,000 words and which, as he pointed out in a journal entry on the 20th of December, it was a target he had reached and would surpass. It was also the first Christmas organised by his partner Dorothy Cheston. Bennett had separated from his wife in 1921. Although separated his wife never agreed to a divorce but Dorothy changed her surname by deed-poll to Bennett. Their time together was relatively short  (he died in 1931) but happy. They had one daughter, Virginia.

 

 

 

“Great prose or not”

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, the statement, backed by facts, “famous writers have more readers.”

It has been a while since I crunched some numbers. The idea came this time from an article written by Mikhail Simkin in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics. Using the results of a blind test where readers were presented with anonymous excerpts from the novels of Charles Dickens and Edwin Bulwer-Lytton, Simkin showed that:

  • the results were on the level of random guessing – that is up against a giant panda using a specially adapted panda-friendly keyboard, you would in all likelihood lose.

He then argued that:

  • famous writers are different from their obscure colleagues because they have more readers – the corollary being that the quality of writing does not differentiate between them.

As you can imagine this kicked up a bit of a stooshie, which Simkin summarised in another article in the journal of the American Statistical Society, Significance.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

Simkin then went on to develop his argument using data from the Goodreads website. Looking at the top ratings given by readers to the works of Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton, he argued that given the proximity of average top ratings for both writers, once again, what differentiated them was solely the number of readers. All of which got to me  to thinking, what would a similar study show when looking at arch-cultural-rivals Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf. Funnily enough, it would look like this:

Watch those numbers stack up.

Which, when turned into a handy bar chart, looks like this:

The mighty bar chart

 

The results are very much in line with those that arose from the study carried out by Simkin, namely that:

  • the difference between the number of ratings for the two writers is noticeable: 2,725 – 91,010 for Virginia Woolf and 41 – 1,788 for Arnold Bennett;
  • the average listed rating is very close for both writers: 3.76 for Virginia Woolf and 3.77 for Arnold Bennett;
  •  Virginia Woolf’s advantage as regards 5 star ratings is small: Virginia Woolf’s average being 26.9% and Arnold Bennett’s being 23.8%,

and of course:

  • “…famous writers just have more readers.”

Objections to all of the above are, like the demons of the man from Gadara, legion. Not the least being, I did not carry out a blind test to distinguish extracts from the works of the two writers. But if nothing else, it has made me consider with a little more depth the validity of any notion of an accepted literary canon. I now have it in mind to repeat the same experiment with Joseph Conrad and H.G.Wells.

Coming up next, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

If you were wondering, I scored 8 out of 12 on the test. 

Note: I made corrections 23rd May 2014 to the title of the chart, Virginia Woolf’s average and range of ratings for Arnold Bennett following suggestions made by Mikhail Simkin.

 

Chance meeting? Not on your statistical nelly.

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, Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr

Lithograph of Wyndham Lewis by the artist. Source: the National Gallery

Lithograph of Wyndham Lewis by the artist. Source: the National Gallery

The Annuaire Statistique is a triumph of counting, if by “triumph” you mean counting on a massive scale, and I certainly do. The website http://www.economie.gouv.fr/ explains its role as:

L’Annuaire statistique de la France est une collection qui regroupe dans un seul volume les statistiques de différentes branches économiques et sociales puis plus tard, industrielles. Cette collection s’étend de 1878 à nos jours et elle est toujours vivante.

Which when put through Google Translate comes out as:

Statistical Yearbook of France is a collection that brings together in one volume statistics of various economic and social sectors and later, industrial. This collection spans from 1878 to the present day and is still alive.

In it you can discover that whereas in 1902 the High Pyrenees had 103 steam locomotives, the Seine Département had  a mighty 486, representing an impressive 5,710 horsepower.

There is an international aspect to the data as well. In 1901 Russia exported  raw materials to the worth of  149,682,000 francs to France and a measly 3,446,000 francs of manufactured goods; France, on the other hand, exported to Russia manufactured goods to the value of 9,989,000 francs. There is enough data to keep a graph nerd happy for a lifetime.

I have made one graph: German and British nationals resident in France, 1896-1921.

German and British nationals resident in France.

German and British nationals resident in France.

Even in 1921, three years after their last attempt to capture it in their spring offensive, there were still more Germans than British resident in Paris (there are no statistics for 1914-1918 but I imagine there were guy few Germans hingin aboot Paris). What were they all doing there? Most had come to work: they cleaned, they served meals, they cooked, some had their own businesses. Looked at in terms of gender, it is German women who formed the largest group, working, like their British counterparts, in the service industries and earning a lot less than the men. Another group, probably smaller and largely confined to German and British intellectuals, settled in Paris, attracted by its “otherness.” In the case of the German artists and intellectuals, they felt in equal parts repelled by the rapid growth and urbanisation of Berlin and attracted to the combination of modernity and tradition represented by Paris. In 1900 much of Paris still  lay within the city walls that had resisted the German siege of 1870; the scattered settlements outside the walls still had the appearance of small villages. But by 1900 you could also use the recently opened Paris metro. You could also, if you were British or German, and not working 12 hours a day scrubbing floors, have a lot more sex than in your own country. 

Wyndham Lewis and his literary creation Frederick Tarr, the hero of the novel, both fall into this last category. Tarr, like Lewis, is a painter in Paris who has to decide between the bourgeois Bertha Lunken and the intellectual, sexual and meat-obsessed Anastasya. Into this wanders the mad German artist Otto Kreisler who, unable to have sex, becomes even more mad. On any level it is an odd novel, given the content and the date of publication (begun before the First World War, Lewis revised it considerably during it and it was finally published in 1918). If you wish you may, after reading it, wish to draw the cultural threads together of German nationalism, Nietzschean philosophy and indeed, a prescient prediction of the rise of nazism. Or you may wish to cut those same threads, and argue that statistically Lewis was bound to meet Ida Vendel in Paris in 1906 just as Tarr was to meet Bertha in the novel, the former being the inspiration for the latter. And why not?

Be that as it may, it is stuffed to the free-loving gunnels with literary taste. A life-affirming (5,3) is therefore plotted.

How's them apples?

Next time, I shall follow the example of Mr.Gradgrind and read only “Fact, fact, fact.”

Mathematics > Literature ≠ Mathematics < Literature

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, an inappropriate application of a mathematical formula to a literary phenomenon, Franz Kafka. 

If x = An Author and y = Another Author then (x*y)**z, where z = Zeitgeist and * = some kind of mathematical operation and ** another kind of mathematical operation , then does it follow that y > x? Thus when x = Arnold Bennett and y = Franz Kafka is the following Google Ngram inevitable?

To all of the above it would be easy to say that it is wrong. I am all for entering through the wide gate rather than the narrow one (it may not lead to salvation but you will have some very nice lunches on the way). But something is going on in the Zeitgeist, something intangible but with effects that can only be described as tangible. Hence that day in 1972 when the books published on and by Kafka outnumbered those of Bennett’s. Hence too the possibility, according to the graph, and perhaps by my beloved x’s, y’s and z’s, that in the next ten years that position will reversed.

I remember many years ago seeing a film called Pi in which a mathematical genius discovers the magical number that explains everything, including how to make a killing on the stock exchange. Pursued by everyone from evil stockbrokers to evangelical believers in the Messiah, he goes quietly bonkers. I wonder if Hollywood would make a film about a literary genius, played by Keira Knightley, who discovers the Philosopher’s Stone (with plenty of x’s, y’s and z’s) that allows you to predict the next change in the Zeitgeist? Pursued by literary agents whom, I wish to point out, I hesitate to call evil, Hollywood producers, professors of literature and op-ed columnists in the up-market press, she too can go quietly bonkers.

I continue with The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and have arrived at the rise of Christianity.

Lies, damned statistics and cool graphs

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, real graphs from Google Ngrams that count the number of mentions of a search term in Google Books. 

To detect changes in the zeitgeist has been notoriously difficult. But not now. With the wonderfully elegant Ngram from Google you can track the highs and lows of everything from cheese to Zoroastrianism. Recently, I have been praising Arnold Bennett and Hugh Walpole (as much their personalities as their books) and wondering if I would have liked to have had a pint with Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey (no). As you can see from the Ngrams below I am clearly on the wrong side of history when it comes to our man Bennett and caught between a rock and a hard place with Walpole and Strachey.

Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 did nothing to dent her rising popularity, whereas Bennett’s death in 1931 was followed by a fall in interest that has only begun to level out in the last ten years. The publication in 1956 of the letters  between Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey can clearly be seen in the graph. Reginald Pound’s biography of Bennett published in 1954 could only detain but not reverse his downward trend in interest in him and his works.

Hugh Walpole and Lytton Strachey are the twin dark stars of publishing, their destinies strangely intertwined. Michael Holroyd’s 1967 biography of Lytton Strachey momentarily reawakened (or reflected)  interest in his work, whereas Rupert Hart-Davis’s biography of Hugh Walpole, published in 1952, two years before Bennett’s, maintained interest in him for less than a decade before the downward course began again.

For those of you interested in what a graph of cheese and Zoroastrianism would look like, it looks like this.

Next the works of Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate from 1913 until his death in 1930.

Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?

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, Sir Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill and The Dark Forest

In the 1944, October 17th edition of the The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror there was a review of Sir Hugh Walpole’s play The Cathedral. “Paul Lorraine,” it reported, “was magnificent as the self-centred embittered old archdeacon…who, suffering under the illusion that everyone is up against him, brings his egotistical castle in the clouds crashing around him.” The acting of Constance Chapman, who played his wife, was described as “sensitive” while Malcolm Farquhar “gave a convincing picture of a hot-headed, impetuous youth.” In The Daily Mail of November 17th 1947, the choice of The Old Ladies, adapted from a Hugh Walpole novel, by the Wyke Players was described as “courageous.” It went on to say “…those who played the three old ladies in the basement deserved great credit.” In January of the following year, the Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror reported on a less than successful production of Hugh Walpole’s The Haxtons by the Knowle Park Congregational Church Dramatic Society. Although “…a sincere, steady production of a social drama…it’s very steadiness proved to be one of its chief faults.” Essayist, critic, novelist and playwright, Sir Hugh Walpole, as the above highlights, was also middle class, middle aged and Middle England. Following his death in June 1941, The Western Morning News published a short obituary under the heading Famous Novelist with Cornish Association Dead. So, we can add the charge of provincialism too.

But, I ask, is that such a bad thing? In the October of 1940, The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror reported on a talk given by Sir Hugh in the Bristol Central Library on The Romantic Novel in England. In the talk, which was described as both “comprehensive and amusing”, Sir Hugh outlined its history, from its beginnings in the 18th century, through the achievements of the Victorians, to the determination of H.G.Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy to tell the truth, “the first of the realists,” and its end following the First World War. Absent from the report was that during the lecture Heinkel 111 bombers of Kampfgeschwader 55, led by Oberleutnant Speck von Sternburg, were attempting to bomb the Bristol Aircraft Works at nearby Filton. Despite the air-raid sirens over 700 people stayed to listen as a 57 year old man talked about the English romantic novel while bombers of a crack Luftwaffe squadron tried to drop bombs on them. Were it not an oxymoron, one could say that any intelligent nazi reading about this would have quickly realised that the game was up and any chance of world domination was lost as soon as Sir Hugh, signing a copy of his The Bright Pavilions for the library, added “In the time of bombing October 18, ’40.”

Not, perhaps, a Churchillian moment but it was an example of the bravery that characterised many of the smaller moments of the war.  It was, I suggest, that quiet, unassuming bravery that Middle England does so well, a quality that we who are not from Middle England can only look on from afar and admire. It was also very human, another quality which I have already suggested was important in the life and work of Sir Hugh Walpole. The American writer Joseph Hergesheimer (1880 – 1954) in his book Hugh Walpole, An Appreciation wrote of his work “They, the novels, are at once provincial, as the great novels invariably are, and universal as any deep penetration of humanity, and considerable artistry, must be.” True, it was published by Walpole’s American publisher and true also that Douglas Goldring (1887 – 1960) in his book Reputations, Essays on Criticism likened the reading of a novel by Hugh Walpole as “…putting on one’s high hat and grandpapa’s Sunday trousers and making a call in Rutland Gate!” Having read Mr Perrin and Mr Traill and The Dark Forest I can vouch for the former criticism and pass lightly over the latter, justifying it by noting Goldring’s friendship with Wyndham Lewis and the whole Vorticist nonsense.

Sir Hugh Walpole, we salute you! In your honour we fire a mighty salvo of coordinates (7,3) and (8,3), moving my literary taste back towards the E.M.Forster axis, which is where we want to be.

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