A manner of payment involving very great evils.

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, Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. 

First page (with illustration) of the first appearance of Framley Parsonage in print, in Cornhill Magazine, 1860-1861. Source: Wikipedia.

First page (with illustration) of the first appearance of Framley Parsonage in print, in Cornhill Magazine, 1860-1861. Source: Wikipedia.

Step forward William Green and take a bow. Without him, and countless others (all landowners and tenants), Trollope’s world of high and low churchmen could never have existed. It was William Green’s farmhouse and fields in the parish of Rock in Worcestershire – the Back Green, Little Orchard, House Meadow, Furlong and Upper Meadow (all arable or meadow) – and the £1 10s 8d (valued thus in 1841) he paid in tithes upon them (worth £109 in 2010) that went toward providing the income for the vicar. In The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales, 1894-5 the parish was listed as having a net value of £637 (£57,400 in 2010), more than enough to allow ample free time to any vicar to wonder if he should ally himself with the rich and fast or the rich and humble with it, as Mark Robarts does in Framley Parsonage. 

Anthony Trollope 1815 -1882. Source: Wikipedia.

Anthony Trollope 1815 -1882. Source: Wikipedia.

The paying of tithes is, of course, a requirement laid down in the Bible – Genesis 14:19 is the first of many such commands. Leviticus 25:8-13 also mentions the obligations of forgiving debts and returning slaves every fifty years under the auspices of a jubilee. The Christian churches, however, appear to have put these obligations to one side, along with the prohibition on eating shellfish and killing witches. Tithes are recorded as having been paid in England since the Anglo-Saxon era, usually in the form of a share of the harvest. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 converted these payments in kind into ready cash. Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary, introducing the Bill into the House of Commons said:

Tithe was now, as it was then, a manner of payment involving very great evils, forcing the clergy to forbearance at the expense of what they deemed to be their rights, or leading them to enforce those rights at the expense of the influence which they ought to possess with their parishioners, compelling them to lose either their income by their indulgence, or their popularity by, he would not say, the exaction of what the law gave them for the support of themselves and their families.

To which, I am sure, we would sagely nod our heads and wonder silently just what on Earth he was talking about. But in 1836 these were the things to be debated, pondered and resolved. Maps were therefore drawn up by commissioners in which every English field, meadow, copse and spinney was noted, plotted and valued. It was from these maps, such as the one made available online by Worcestershire Council, that the likes of William Green was asked to cough up his £1 10s 8d. The Dorsetshire tithe maps (the likely inspiration for Trollope’s imaginary Barsetshire) are behind the paywall of Ancestry.co.uk so to hell with them.

The location of William Green's land in the Parish of Rock. Source: http://ukga.org/england/Worcestershire/

The location of William Green’s land in the Parish of Rock.
Source: http://ukga.org/england/Worcestershire/

William Green, and all those like him, are absent from the pages of Framley Parsonage. Trollope, I imagine, did not have to think long and hard to make up his mind to leave them in the fields, praying for wet summers and clear winters. Whatever their opinions were of the internecine struggles between the high and low factions in the Church of England, or whether a vicar should or should not ride with the local hunt, he was merely happy to see them pay their tithes every year, and let others in better-fitting clothes discuss such matters at soirees and the such like. But it is these silent heroes who make Trollope’s delightful machine whirr into action like the enormous whirry thing it is.

Have I, once again, missed the point in my Marxist-light reading of Framley Parsonage? I can only hope so. However, I am not blind to it being filled to the top of the churn with freshly-milked literary taste and I unhesitatingly add a sturdy rural plot of (8,1) to the chart.

How's them apples?

Next time, an attempt to quantify numerically my literary taste.


Stella Benson: a novelist who happened to travel quite a lot

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, Stella Benson and The Little World
But first:

My novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts is now available as an ebook.

It can be purchased at:

Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

Or at: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Barnes and Noble and the iBookstore

If you’d like to get in touch with any questions about the novel or comments drop me a line at

acityofghosts AT gmail dot com


The RMS Empress of Russia was launched in Govan in Scotland on the 28th of August, 1912. Built for the Canadian Pacific Railway company it sailed the Far East route between Canada, China and Japan. Apart from mail, it carried 284 1st class passengers, 100 2nd class and up to 800 steerage passengers in a journey across the Pacific that would last approximately eight days. In an age of this:

Allure of the Seas. Source: Wikipedia

we’ve forgotten that this:

Empress of Russia. Source: Simplon Postcards.

Was the equivalent of this:

(But not this:)

The Hindenburg. Source: Wiikipedia.

Canadian Pacific sailing times. Source: http://www.timetableimages.com/

Stella Benson (1892–1933) made that journey across the Pacific, calling at Vancouver, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Manila (also the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and, I think, the Mediterranean) on a number of occasions, and travelled first class on the Empress of Russia too. That it was nothing out of the ordinary can be seen in the lack of comments to do with the nitty gritty of travel in the steamship age in her book The Little World or in her biography Portrait of Stella Benson (published in 1939, in time for World War Two, I wonder if that is why in part she disappeared so quickly from the zeitgeist). True, on one of her journeys someone died from diving into an empty swimming pool but apart from that little else seemed to happen.

Stella Benson by Wyndham Lewis. Source National Portrait Gallery.

Stella herself almost died on one of these journeys. Always suffering from ill health she had come down, as she did frequently, with an attack of pleurisy. Only the care given by, I think, a steward saved her life. As a young woman she had made these long journeys by sea because she wanted to. Always independent she had lived alone in London during the First World War, working for a charity based in Hoxton, London. Following the end of the war, it seemed only natural that she should travel, alone, to California. It was this journey she repeated with her husband, this time by car, a Ford which they named Stephanie, coast-to-coast, in conditions which seemed not to have changed much since the days of Oregon Trail.

Once married, these journeys by steamship became a necessity. Her husband was a customs official in a number of Chinese provinces and the Winters proved too much for her fragile health. She wintered in California or visited her mother in England rather than risk her health in China. And herein lay the problem. She collected her experiences as a youthful traveller in The Little World. From it emerges the image of a clever, insightful and, above all,  funny woman. She was clever and funny enough to write of the granting of a degree of political autonomy to India:

Among other Calcutta women I had permission to witness this historic ceremony. Nevertheless, though I and the other women put on our most ceremonious hats or saris and flourished grass-green passes, the authorities decreed, on second thoughts, that the occasion was too historic for the eye of woman.

Married or single, pretty or plain, intelligent or dull she was a woman. Married, she had no choice but to play second fiddle to her husband. Where he went she followed and her own literary career was fitted into his. She was not the first woman to experience this disappointment, nor will she be the last.

Of The Little World she felt little affection.

…Stella always spoke of it as trivial hack-work…

She wanted to be known for her fiction, such as Tobit Transplanted, published in 1931 and winner of the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize. But on her death the Western Daily Press summarised her life under the heading, Miss Stella Benson Dead. Novelist Who Loved To Travel. The Western Daily Press wrote of Tobit Transplanted that it was:

…a kind of modern version of a tale in the Apocrypha placed in Manchuria;

before adding that:

Travel was her hobby.

Perhaps that was Stella Benson’s undoing in the years after the Second World War. Stories written by a woman who had shot tigers, travelled alone in Mexico, survived bandit gangs in China and lived through an earthquake had a limited role to play in the new atomic world of East and West. Her colonial associations may not have worn well in this world of black and white television and Harold Macmillian’s “…most of our people have never had it so good.” Her husband was, after all, an official in the Chinese Customs Service at a time when trade in China was seen as a prerogative of the Western economies.

I was going to be a coward and use her humour as an excuse to sit her on that fence of coordinates, neither in one camp nor in the other. She deserves more than being a footnote in biographies of Virginia Woolf. A sturdy (9,6) places her in her rightful place of literary taste.

Up next time,  E.C.Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case.

A picture paints a thousand metaphors

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, Portrait in a Mirror by Charles Morgan, first published in 1929. 

But first:

My novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts is now available as an ebook.

It can be purchased at:

Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

Or at: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukBarnes and Noble  and the iBookstore

If you’d like to get in touch with any questions about the novel or comments drop me a line at

acityofghosts AT gmail dot com

Nigel, the narrator of the Portrait in a Mirror, is a young man, still in his teens, in love with an older woman about to be married. Speaking as a middle-aged man who was once a young man, still in his teens, this is something with which I can identify. He is awkward and socially inept, all of which reminds me why I do not miss my adolescence. He is also a talented artist, and there my identification with Nigel ends. He does lay his head on his beloved’s bosom but with a little more chasteness than your average adolescent boy normally would show in such a situation. Not for the first time in literature, art provides the means of escape from the narrowness of life in the provinces.

The setting is the English shires (or counties, I never remember which) in the mid-1870s. This would put Nigel’s birth in the early to mid-1850s. Looking at the names of British artists born at this time, we come across men such as George Clausen (1854 – 1942) who painted like this: 

The Girl at the Gate. Source xaxor.com

Or there is Edward Wilkin Waites (1854 – 1924) who painted like this:

A Surrey Cottage in June. Source burlington.co.uk

And then there is the wonderful Alfred Wallis (1855 – 1942) who painted like this:

The Blue Ship. Source tate.org.uk.

Nigel’s teacher, the painter Henry Fullaton, sees the spirt of originality in his work and also the danger that comes from being a willful taker of risks. The painters I’ve mentioned above, and others I have looked at, do not fit that pattern. Even Alfred Wallis, I’m certain, painted what he saw, whereas Nigel strives to paint what cannot be seen. Charles Morgan (his biography is here) may not have had any British painter in mind when he wrote the novel, but it is striking how little the artists born at this time fit his description of Nigel and his work.

However, when you turn to women artists born at the same time, you find Marianne Stokes (1855 – 1927) who painted like this:

Angel. Source: bertc.com

Or Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856 – 1927) who painted this:

Melody (Musica). Source: bertc.com

Or Dame Ethel Walker (1861 – 1951) – yes, I’m stretching the date requirement but if I don’t my argument won’t hold water – who painted this self-portrait in 1925:

Dame Ethel Walker. Source npg.org.uk

All, I feel, more challenging, and rewarding, to the viewer than the male artists mentioned above.

Putting aside this spurious argument I’ve developed, one based on nothing but what it is I want to see, what of literary taste in the novel? There’s oodles of it. It fair sloshes around like a bucket filled with champagne. Such is the rigour of its style and pointed nature of its prose, I felt as if I had risen a whole social class by the time I finished it. Suffice to say, I have since sunk back to my usual level. Literary taste, as I have discovered not only has a social element (see the previous blog) it also has more than its fair share of class, and English class at that. A rewarding (3,1) seems a just choice of coordinates.

Another damned thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?

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, Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Northampton Mercury of 25th of January 1794 reported that the death of the historian Edward Gibbon came after he had suffered “gouty pains in the stomach.” On the same page of the newspaper were a series of adverts for patent medicines: Paregoric Lozenges (“…universally esteemed for their Efficacy in Loss of Appetite…”; Jackson’s Asthmatic Candy (useful in “…Complaints of the Stomach and Lungs, arising from Indigestion and Flatulency…”); Infallible German Corn Plasters; Pectoral Essence of Coltfoot; Dr. Arnold’s Pills (“..a speedy remedy for the Venereal Disease…”; and, of course, Spilsbury’s Antiscorectic Drops which, as the extract from the Lewes Journal that accompanied the advert made clear, cured Mr. Newnham, a capital farmer and timber merchant  from Sussex, when suffering from “…a Virulent Scorbutic Eruption…” It’s unlikely any of the above would have helped Edward Gibbon, having just been operated shortly before his death for a hydrocele, a fluid filled sac in the scrotum which his friends advised was so large it had to be removed.

A search on the British Newspaper Archive leads to only a few references to the life, work and death of Edward Gibbon. Instead the Eighteenth Century emerges in all its smelly glory – absent in Gibbon’s own autobiography, curious when you think of his multi-volume history of the Roman Empire which more than evoked its own glory, if not the smells. Britain was at war with Revolutionary France and an allied army stood on the banks of the Rhine, where 69,000 troops were reported slaughtered, dooming the Royalist cause to failure.  In Lille, a military hospital was set on fire with the deaths of over a thousand men; Tom Paine was reported to be in prison in Luxembourg and Admiral Hood was lauded for his capture at Toulon of nineteen ships of the line and twenty six frigates and sloops, “…a loss we believe never before sustained by the French in the whole of any one war with Great Britain.” In Edinburgh Maurice Margarot was sentenced to fourteen years transportation for sedition and in the House of Commons Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig opposition, and the great conservative politician Edmund Burke, clashed, in very, very, very long speeches over the issue of religious toleration; Fox drawing on Gibbon’s views of Pagan and Christian persecution and Burke drawing on his rejection of any inalienable rights enjoyed by Man, the recent anti-Dissenter riots in Birmingham and cannibalism (in France, of course, not Birmingham).

Elsewhere domestic life continued. In The Caledonian Mercury of June 5th, 1788 Montogomery and Steele, confectioners of Edinburgh, adverstised “For a light groom that can occasionally comb hair”, a reward of three guineas was offered for the identity of a four day old baby girl found on the road to Dalkeith and on the 6th Mr. Breslaw would “…display a variety of New Capital Deceptions and Experiments. Quite in a manner entirely new” in the Town Hall in Musselburgh. In the Guildhall, London, John Reeves was tried for libelling the British Constitution and found not guilty; William Austin was tried for forging the will of the Rev. Henry Lewes, found guilty and sentenced to death. In the Court of King’s Bench Lord Valentine was shown to have connived in the seduction of his wife by the trustee in charge of his inheritance and awarded two thousand pounds (he had asked for ten). Houses caught fire, bankrupts were declared and the Poor who were given dressed meat by the Rev. Hill to help see them through the winter, received also a uplifting message with each gift such as “They that can scarcely keep themselves should never keep a dog.”

From the midst of this hyperbole and wanton use of capital letters, Edward Gibbon managed to write twelve volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (as advertised in The Bath Chronicle for £6.6s in 1790 and worth£587 in 2012) in a cool, limpid, crystal clear prose that must have been at odds with almost everything that people read at the time. As the historian C.V.Wedgwood pointed out in her pamphlet on Edward Gibbon published in 1955 “The English as writers have a false conception of themselves. We do not think of ourselves as passionate, yet the great strength and almost all the faults of English arise from passion.” It’s not that Gibbon was without passion. it’s that “…he kept it within bounds and when he wrote, his first thought was for the whole work of art.” Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible have been given the credit for the sound, tone and meaning of English; but as for style, elegant, effortless style that adds to the meaning, that credit must go to Edward Gibbon.

What of literary taste? Using the tried, tested and trusted system of Would-I-Have-A-Pint-With-Him where does that put the coordinates on the graph? Dear God, I would have put up with a dose of Scrofula or taken Trotter’s Asiatic Tooth Powder, and smiled, just to have sat with him for five minutes! As his patron Lord Sheffield, who was deeply affected by his death, said “Those of us who enjoyed the company of Mr. Gibbon will agree with me that his conversation was still more captivating than his writings.” So, it’s to (9,3) we go, which if we were playing Connect 4, would be a game winning move.

Next time, it’s back to the Twentieth Century and two new authors for me: Charles Morgan’s Portrait in a Mirror and Stella Benson’s The Little World. 

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.

Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant: a warning from history

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, more real graphs from Google Ngrams and a warning from history from Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant.

Arnold Bennett was born in 1867 and grew up in what many would argue was a golden age in English Literature: Dickens, Thackerary, Gaskell, Trollope, Hardy, the Brontes, Eliot and Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (née Margaret Wilson Oliphant: she married her cousin Francis Wilson Oliphant in 1852), 1828 – 1897. Her entry in the Dictionary of National Biography compared her novels to those of George Eliot, particularly the four novels in her series Chronicles of Carlingford. Margaret Oliphant’s Ngram looks like this:

Whereas George Eliot’s Ngram looks like this:

Search for George Eliot on the BBC shop and you are given the chance to buy one audiobook and four DVDs. Search for Margaret Oliphant and you are given thirty eight results which contain the word “elephant.” Clearly something odd is happening in the zeitgeist

Yet Margaret Oliphant was a profitable, popular and prolific author. After the success of Salem Chapel, the publisher Mr Blackwood paid her £1500 for The Perpetual Curate (worth  £104,000 in 2011 according to MeasuringWorth.com), much to the horror of his cashier. According to the online At the Circulating Library – a database of Victorian Fiction, she was, with 62 serialised titles, the most prolific of serial authors; and with 100 titles, she was the most prolific of authors, full stop. Of the authors mentioned above only Trollope makes it into any of these categories, coming in at number five  in Most Prolific Authors with 52 titles.

Of the previous generation of writers, Sir Walter Scott, is often presented as an author driven to write by circumstances, a necessity which, we all know, finally killed him. Scott’s biographer, John Gibson Lockhart, wrote of a party at the Edinburgh home of William Menzies, a Supreme judge at the Cape of Good Hope. A friend asked him to swap seats because he had had enough of watching the hand of a writer hidden in some corner of the room fill page after page without pause. Some stupid clerk, replied someone in the party.  The host quietly reprimanded them by saying “No, boys. I well know what hand it is—’tis Walter Scott’s.” Lockhart finished the anecdote by adding “…this was the hand that, in the evenings of three summer weeks, wrote the two last volumes of Waverley.” However, with his 64 titles as listed by the Dictionary of National Biography, Scott would have come a distant fourth to Margaret Oliphant in the category of Most Prolific Authors in At the Circulating Library.

Like Sir Walter Scott, Margaret Oliphant was obliged to write. Living in Rome because of her husband’s poor health, she was widowed in 1859, in debt to the tune of £1000 (£78,000 in 2012) and pregnant with her third child. Returning to Rome in 1864, she was faced with the further grief of losing her daughter, followed shortly by the return of her recently widowed brother from Canada with his three children, all of whom she took into her home, charging herself with their care and education. Given that they were to be educated at Eton, the money she earned from her multi-volume series was always quickly spent: as the author of her entry in the DNB put it “…her life might have been described as slavery to the pen, if writing had not been a real enjoyment to her.” Her two sons, despite their privileged education, never amounted to much; they died before she did without accomplishing anything of note. She died, after a journey to Sienna, at the age of 69. A few days before her death she had even managed to compose a few lines in honour of Queen Victoria’s jubilee.

Of her 100 titles, Bennett included one in Literary Taste, Salem Chapel. Of George Eliot’s eight, he included five. This is not the place to dispute the statement that although the works of both were comparable, the mind behind Margaret Oilphant’s novels was “…manifestly of less intellectual calibre.” But she was of sufficient importance and held in high regard during her lifetime to have caused Robert Louis Stevenson to charge in on his friend Harry Moors, excitedly waving a sheet of paper in the air, crying out  that he  “…would never guess, if I gave you all morning, who it is who has at last admitted me to be in the front rank of my profession. It is Mrs Oliphant, my dear sir – Mrs Oliphant!” Like the Victorian penny dreadfuls, she seems to have, if not disappeared from the literary zeitgeist, to have slipped far to one side, hidden by the bustles of George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell’s dresses; and like the penny dreadfuls she seems to play only a small part in our conception of the varied forms taken by Victorian literary culture; and like the copy of Marvel’s Avengers No. 1 I bought on Sunday, she is there somewhere in that pliable, personal and subjective entity, known as literary taste.

Coming soon, Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate.


I did not of course of buy a physical copy of Avengers No. 1. As this rather splendid graph shows, even adjusting its 1963 cover price of 12¢ to its 2011 equivalent of 86¢, makes little difference when comparing with the $4,299.99 being asked for a first edition on sale on eBay. I bought it instead from the online comiXology for 1.59€.

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.

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.

London 0 Hull 4

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 Hull Literary Club. 

The Hull Literary Club (which really was a literary club and not a independent pop group such as The Bombay Bicycle Club) was founded in 1879 and met regularly until 1983. Talks were given and a journal was published. Apart from encouraging an interest in literature, it sought specifically to promote writers from Hull and the surrounding area. One of its members was Philip Larkin, whose poem The Mower⁠1 was published in Humberside, the club’s journal, in 1979. It grew out of an era of British history when provincial meant more than just having an accent. When, perhaps, not living in London was not seen as a handicap when it came to the reading of books.

Accounts of its meetings were published regularly in the the Hull Daily Mail. In January of 1939 the members of the club listened to Frank Thompson give a talk on The Modern Short Story, its debt to Maupassant and Tchekov and its current masters Somerset Maughan, Elizabeth Bowen, Aldous Huxley, H.E.Bates and James Hanley. He concluded by saying that if it was an art in its infancy, it was a lusty infant, suited to the expression of the age. In February it was the matter of “Recent Books” that caught the interest of the speakers. Bertrtand Russell’s Power, Louis Golding’s The Jewish Problem and a criticised Herbert Palmer’s Post Victorian Poetry were all discussed. Our man Bennett’s Literary Taste was surveyed lightly and humorously, while a careful study was made of Hall Caine’s Life of Christ and Dr Cronin’s The Citadel was contrasted with Francis Brett Young’s Dr Bradley Remembers. And so it goes on through the rest of the year with a slight interruption caused by the outbreak of war in September of that year. In November Frank Thompson, now club president, spoke of the challenge to the conventional values of life and that in the works of the the three Powys brothers, John, Llewellyn and Theodore, the essential truths of life could be found. And as at the end of every meeting, thanks were proposed and supported.

We have, of course, been visiting Bennett’s constituency of readers, not withstanding the light and humorous survey of Literary Taste. Indeed it could be said that it is because of the tone of the talk that we know that we are with like-minded people. And as it could be said, then I will say it. There is no Rex Warner here, no Henry Green, no James Joyce and definitely no Dorothy Richardson. Nor should there be. We are in the provinces. We may order our books from London publishers, we may even read the reviews in the London press, but we feel no need to ape their modish likes and dislikes.

1 The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found

A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,

Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.

Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world

Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.

The first day after a death, the new absence

Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind

While there is still time.

The blue rotary lawn mower that killed the hedgehog can be found in the archive of Philip Larkin’s work at the University of Hull, as can the archives of the Hull Literary Club.

Easy as she goes

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 Midshipman Easy, written by Captain Frederick Marryat and first published in 1833. 

In her biography of her father, The Life and Letters of Captain Frederick Marryat, Dorothy Marryat recounts an incident that occurred during his campaign to become an MP for Tower Hamlets in 1833. Asked by a voter if he was opposed to flogging in the navy he gave a long and indirect answer. Asked again if he would flog either himself or one of his sons should they ever come under his command, Marryat replied:

“Sir, you say the answer I gave you is not direct; I will answer you again. If ever you, or one of your sons, should come under my command and deserve punishment, if there be no other effectual mode of conferring it I shall flog you.”

We can congratulate ourselves on living in more civilized times yet still indulge our sense of regret that there is not a best-selling author alive today who could give such an answer.

This was the same year that saw the publication of his best selling novel  Midshipman Easy, recommended, of course, by Arnold Bennett. Dorothy writes that the publishers, Messrs. Saunders and Otley, paid him £1200 for the book (worth £88,800 in 2011 according to the MeasuringWorth website in case you were wondering). Jack Easy is rich too at the end of the novel, from prize money won in combat with Spanish and French ships and from the inheritance he receives after the death of his father. Marryat makes sure that life at sea has matured the hotheaded youth and his naive belief in the equality of all men. The drive of the novel, in which mutinies, attacks by evil Italian half-brothers and the years spent at sea are telescoped into a few pages, takes him from his indulged childhood to wealth, marriage and a house in the country. Like Captain Marryat he can now live the life of a gentleman and, like his creator, write long letters to the newspapers in which, complaining of the effects of cheap and sensationalist literature, he could claim “…it would be better at once to stop all national education, for every child that is taught to read is but prepared to receive the poison which is now so rapidly circulating.”

Once more, it is easy to mock (although gently, I hope). Marryat described himself as devoted to the  Liberal cause, denouncing the use of child labour in factories and describing the destitute artisans he saw in Spitalfields as victims of a new slavery. Jack Easy is a precursor of the modern hero in fiction, a man of action whose interior life, nonetheless, clashes with the exterior world, leading to new perspectives, growth and thoughtful reflection. For all these reasons, it is a welcome coordinate of (6,3) that is plotted on the chart.

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