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.

Handy in a fight?

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, Bennett versus Woolf. 

On the 30th March 1931, the Western Daily Press (published in Bristol) reported the death of Arnold Bennett, one of the “greatest figures” in English Literature. He was, in the writer’s opinion, the “technical master” of the novel, in the same lineage as Fielding and Dickens. It includes the telling comment, “As a writer of life he shunned the intellectual standpoint and thereby created better works of art.”

Virginia Woolf would probably have agreed with one part of that final comment, although it is unlikely  she was a regular reader of the Western Daily Press. Checking the index for the essays in Virginia Woolf (edited by Harold Bloom) there is in fact no mention of Bristol, which raises the tantalising possibility that Virginia Woolf did not know where it was, far less subscribe to its newspaper. This is not as fanciful as it seems. Frank Swinnerton, Bennett’s friend, writing in Figures in the Foreground, spoke more than once of the importance of getting out once in a while and meeting people. Virginia Woolf, he felt of all the Bloomsbury group, was particularly bad at that. Whatever the truth of this, it would be fair to say that in any Geography test our man Bennett would have outscored Woolf, particularly anything arising from the catchment areas of the rivers Avon, Trent, Severn and Wye.

How different the history of English literature would have been had they chosen to fight out their diagreements via common entrance examinations in Geography. But they didn’t. According to Margaret Drabble in her biography of Arnold Bennett it was Woolf who took exception to a negative comment in an overall positive review of her book Jacob’s Room. It was Woolf who described Bennett as having a “…a shopkeeper’s view of literature.” A good choice of words on her part. Had she written that he had a solicitor’s view of literature (he had trained for a while to be a solicitor) we probably wouldn’t have known what she meant. He was, in the end, provincial.

Matthew Arnold had a lot to say about provincialism. Prose that was extravagant, he felt, was more than likely to be provincial, and far from his attic ideal. Newspapers carried much of the blame for the prevalence of provincialism in British culture, the brutalité des journaux anglais as he reminds us of how the French looked upon our press. English newspapers are not checked by coming into contact with any centre of intellect or urbanity, “rather they are stimulated by coming into contact with a provincial spirit.” The Western Daily Press for example.

It is tempting to look on all of the above as a wider metaphor for the persistent conflict between between highbrow and middlebrow culture, metropolitan and provincial attitudes in Britain. Given that contained within any understanding of the word “tempting” there has to be something of surrendering to it, then that is what I shall do. I shall surrender to it. All of the above is just that, a metaphor for the division between these two worlds. Should you wonder on which side your own tastes fall, ask yourself this: who would you rather have at your side on the fields of Agincourt, the gun deck of the Victory or the beaches at Dunkirk, a reader of the Western Daily Press or Virginia Woolf?

The elephant in the living room

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 included. This week Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden, first published in 1928. 

In the December of 1916, after two years of war, the Central Powers declared they were ready to negotiate peace terms with the Allies. President Wilson, asked by the Central Powers to broker the talks, asked both sides what their peace terms were. The Allies quickly replied: a free and neutral Belgium, its rights guaranteed by self-representation. The Germans didn’t bother to reply as that was the last thing that they wanted. In the first months of the war the German leadership had stated its war aims in the secret Septemberprogramm, as “security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time.” Belgium would be reduced to a vassal state, large chunks of the French coast would be annexed, an empire carved out of Central Africa and Russia pushed as far back as possible from the eastern frontier.  It makes you wonder why they bothered asking for peace negotiations in the first place.

Edmund Blunden was twenty one by the time the war ended. He had survived two years without a scratch, not physical ones anyway. Reviewing Undertones of War, his account of his time as Temporary Second Lieutenant in the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment, in the Evening Standard Bennett wrote “…The intimate horror of war has never been, and never will be, more movingly and modestly rendered than he renders it.” Blunden was brave as the cutting below from the London Gazette from the 26th January 1917 makes all too clear.

He was also a modest man, never mentioning his award of the Military Cross in the book. His poetry shines through his prose, as does his love of countryside, even the blasted wastelands in which he toiled, officered and strolled through. He witnessed the deadly and deathly consequences of the “red tab’s” tinkerings with maps and plans of attack. It was all a terrible waste. And, like the elephant in the living room that no one mentions, those German troops still occupy neutral Belgium, their masters anticipating that their stay there will be a long one.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Without that waste, call it sacrifice if you will, witnessed by Blunden, those German troops (who did commit atrocities against Belgian civilians) would not have left of their own choice. My search for literary taste here has come up against the uncomfortable truths that history sometimes deals in; also reading the work of a young man when you are in middle-age and seeing that youthful passionate belief in Right and Wrong has faded somewhat. I read his book sympathetically but with an emotional distance that surprises me. Coordinates have to be given, direction maintained and velocity pursued, therefore (10, 10) is given, leading off the graph to unknown territories.

Talking the talk

This was always going to be tough, like that difficult second album (or is it the third?) after the first flush of success when the creative energy that rises from naive enthusiasm is replaced by the demands and expectations of managers, producers, executives, critics and fans. Having read John Selden’s Table Talk I’m certain he would have had something to say about the above analogy, probably in heavy tones of irony, drawing on legal statutes from the reign of Henry the Second and very probably in Latin.

In 200 pages he covers the gamut from Abbeys to Zealots, stopping off to comment on Bishops in the Parliament, Canon Law, Consecrated Places, God’s Judgements, Popery, Prophecies and the Wife. It is heavily footnoted by the its editor the Late Fellow and Tutor of Brasenose College, Samuel Harvey Reynold, MA., who clearly shared Selden’s love of Latin. The tenor of his writing can perhaps be seen in his entry on Praemunire:

“There can be no Praemunire,” he wrote, explaining that “A Praemunire was when a Man laid an Action in an Ecclesiastical Court, for which he could have no remedy in any of the King’s Courts, that is, in the Courts of Common Law, by reason the Ecclesiastical Courts before Henry the Eighth were subordinate to the Pope, and so it was contra coronam et dignitatem Regis; but now the Ecclesiastical Courts are equally subordinate to the King. Therefore it cannot be contra coronam et Dignitatem Regis, and so no Praemunire.”

You had to be there I suppose. There being 1640s England and being invited by John Selden to his table to listen to him talk. Somewhere in all this I came across a comparison to Samuel Johnson presumably written by someone who had never read anything written by Samuel Johnson.

It is easy to mock such writing which of course is why we do it, and yet he had been included in Arnold Bennett’s reading list. Why? What was it in  the writings of a seventeenth century constitutional lawyer, a member of parliament, a disputer with presbyterians and friend of the playwright Ben Jonson that Bennett thought could contribute to the formation of a literary taste? An answer, I think, can be found in the 1909 edition of The Dictionary of National Biography where Selden’s life is described over ten pages. From them comes the description of an educated man, temperate in his passions but “liberal with his table”, neither a follower of those how claimed the divine right of kings nor of those claimed the divine right of those who regarded themselves elected by God to rule the roost, a believer, above all, in the social contract between a king and his people. Reasons enough for any educated British liberal born in the last decades of the nineteenth century to regard him as worthy of attention and study.

Bennett writes of the importance of regular mental stocktaking warning that “…if you omit this mere business precaution, it may well be that you, too, without knowing it, are little by little joining the triflers who read only because eternity is so long.” Later he adds “…if the memory of these books does not quicken the perception of beauty…does not help you to correlate the particular trifle with the universal, does not smooth out irritation and give dignity to sorrow-then you are…unworthy of your high vocation as a bookman.” By the end John Selden’s Table Talk I had form a surprising liking for the man who, at least from his writings, spoke badly of no one. But having reminded myself of what Bennett described as his own “severely moral mood” when it came to the formation of a literary taste I have no choice but to plot a very disappointing coordinate of (2,8).

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