Bennett’s Twelve Best Novels: all Russian

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.

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The Bennett family home in Cobridge – pen drawing by Neville Malkin – source http://www.thepotteries.org

 

Arnold Bennett was born in 1867 in Hanley in the Potteries. He grew up in a modest house in that town but following his father’s qualification as a solicitor they moved in 1881 to Cobridge. His father had bought a building site there and built a house on it, costing £1,001 (calculated using the measure of historic standard of living as £90,180 in 2015). His adolescence then passed, if not in absolute luxury, then at least in relative luxury, compared to many people in nearby Stafford who earned, on average, 13/- 6d per week (£73.35 measured using the same historic standard of living). He, as we know, moved to London, driven, if not by a desire to escape poverty, then to escape the heavy hand of his father, especially when it came to money (Bennett would always be generous when it came to entertaining and travelling). He would return to the Potteries in some of his best novels, Anna of the Five Towns and The Old Wives’ Tale, for example. But he never regretted the personal, professional and cultural freedom he discovered first in London and then Paris. Throughout his life this theme of discovery of the new, achieved through self-improvement, would appear in his work. It was his self-help book, Literary Taste: How to Form It that inspired me to write this blog.

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Nikolai Leskov – inscribed photograph- source Wikipedia.

I do wonder sometimes which of his Books and Persons columns grew out of this set of beliefs. His column of the 10th of February 1927 would appear to be one of these. He may not have chosen the strapline, The Twelve Finest Novels All Russian, but that is the message he wanted to give. As a bestselling English author with a column in The Evening Standard he would have received books from every major UK publisher but, in this column, he chose instead to set the cat amongst the pigeons and praise the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, a contemporary of Tolstoy. Bennett did not discover Leskov for English readers, or indeed any Russian writer. Pushkin had been translated since the 1820s; Tolstoy from the early 1900s and Dostoevsky from the 1910s, largely through the pioneering work of Constance Garnett. But here he was, friend of H.G.Wells, Frank Harris and Lord Beaverbrook (owner of The Evening Standard), introducing Leskov’s short novel The Enchanted Wanderer:

I have been asserting for 20 years that the twelve finest novels are all Russian, and as time passes I find an increasing number of people to agree with me; I have little doubt that the number of people will continue to increase. So that I hope to be excused if I say, as I do say, that the appearance of an English translation of a novel by Lyeskov (or Leskov) is an important event in the literary year.

Of the novel itself he wrote:

The Enchanted Wanderer is a masterpiece – of humour, pathos, romance, and adventure. No novelist ever had a finer narrative gift  than Lyeskov. Even if he was not obviously a genius, his mere technical skill would make him remarkable in the evolution of the art of fiction.

Having read the novel, I cannot help but wonder what I missed. Enjoyable, insightful, at times charming, I could not shake the feeling that I was reading a “one-thing-after-another” novel. The central character, Ivan Flyagin, suffers much pain and heartache until he enters a monastery, as promised to God by his mother when a baby. And that’s about it. This is, however, by-the-by. Arnold Bennett, the local boy made good in the world, thought it worth praising to the readership 0f The Evening Standard. What did they make of it? In a post-war Britain, where Sir Malcolm Campbell had just set a new world land speed record of 174 m.p.h. and Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0 to win the F.A. Cup, did the readers of The Evening Standard buy the novel? Impossible to say, of course. But something did happen to sales of the novel, as can be seen in this Ngram measuring the number of times the title appeared in English:

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Ngram showing mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer.

This reflects all mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer, such as in Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review of 1927 or The Book-of-the-Month Club news from 1950. But somewhere in that peak of 1927ish is Bennett’s review and I am sure it was good enough for readers of his column to go out and buy the novel. Like Bennett, they too may have looked for the new, and in a novel like this have seen an opportunity for self-improvement.

On the 9th of February, Bennett read of the death of his friend and novelist George Sturt, a now largely forgotten writer on English rural life; and on the 10th, Bennett finished reading Histoire de la Bienheureuse Fille Raton, a rather rude French novel.

 

The County of Roxburgh: tastemaker

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 County of Roxburgh.

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Roxburgh, showing rail routes – source: happyhaggis.co.uk

Reading Bennett’s reviews from the Evening Standard (I’m using the collected edition, edited by Andrew Mylett – Arnold Bennett, The Evening Standard Years, ‘Books and Persons,’ 1926-1931) I am struck by the breadth of subjects on which he wrote. These are not book reviews per se. Rather they are the evidence of an inquiring mind with a pronounced literary bent. Lord Beaverbrook, owner of The Evening Standard and friend of Bennett, I am certain, was of the same opinion. I am equally sure he was hoping that by signing up Bennett, one of Britain’s most popular novelists, would only add to the newspaper’s prestige. Bennett characteristically referred to the articles as “book gossip.”

But what gossip! I’ve already referred to Bennett’s comments on the dearth of young novelists. But he also wrote on publishers who published unoriginal novels, the New School of writing (in which he included Virginia Woolf) and what he considered Thackeray’s cowardice. On the 7th of April 1927 his article on public libraries was published under the title How Libraries Can Form Public Taste: A Popular “County” Novelist. In it he writes of the post of county librarian being advertised by the County of Roxburgh in the Scottish Borders. He does question paying someone in such a post only £3 a week (worth £155 in 2014). He then goes on to add:

…public libraries and their librarians constitute a more important factor in the national life than we are apt in our unimaginativeness to suppose. If Blücher (with Wellington’s aid) won the battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton, we are entitled to say that the battle for sound literary taste must be won in the public libraries.

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Carnegie Public Library in Ayr – source: southayrshirehistory.wordpress.com

In an age that has seen many councils decide that public libraries are no longer either affordable or necessary, his words hark back to the beginning of what was to be a period of expansion in the provision of public access to literature. I also wonder how many other critics spoke so forcefully at the time of the importance of libraries in the cultural life of Great Britain? Bennett was a wealthy man, but he was by nature a democrat who used his position as a bestselling author to encourage the creation of a public that read widely and critically.

He was also a social animal. On the 6th of April, he had lunch with Jane and H.G. Wells, dined with Lord Beaverbrook and then went to a house-warming party given by the leading British interior decorator Syrie Maugham!

 

Arnold Bennett’s plain words

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, The Ruin by Edward Sackville-West. 

Edward Sackville-West Source: The National Portrait Gallery.

Arnold Bennett’s review of The Ruin by Edward Sackville-West appeared in the 25th of November edition of the Evening Standard (you can read a detailed review at the excellent Reading 1900-1950 site).  Under the heading Plain Words to Our Younger Novelists, he wrote:

He can sometimes produce emotional effects of beauty (also what is loosely termed ugliness) which she [the novelist Mary Borden, reviewed by Bennett in the same column] could not even begin to produce. I should say that he may one day count – though The Ruin is perhaps excessively jejune, and has many pages about nothing.

Book cover forThe Ruin. Source: amazon.com

Book cover forThe Ruin. Source: amazon.com

Bennett then commented:

I am very interested in young writers [Sackville-West was 25 and Bennett was 59] – and rather gloomy about them. Nor am I alone in my gloominess. I find, when conversation on the subject has grown frank and intimate, that the young themselves are gloomy about their writers. I know that the war killed about 50 per cent. of potential talents. But the other 50 per cent. promise too little, and have performed almost nothing so far.

This was still a post-war society (the war had ended 8 years before)  for whom the one million dead were not great-grandfathers but rather fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, husbands and wives. When it came to literature, for every Siegfried Sassoon returned to his family how many Isaac Rosenbergs  had been left on the battlefield? Bennett, who had worked for Lord Beaverbrook in the War Propaganda Bureau,  was clearly concerned that the next literary renewal, which thirty years before had been embodied in the works of H.G.Wells or more recently in those of E.M.Forster, simply would not happen.

But to-day?…The elders and their immediate successors (such as E.M.Forster and D.H.Lawrence) can and do, when up to their form, knock the stuffing out of the boys and girls.

Plain words indeed for the younger novelists. As for me, I rather enjoyed the high drama of rural life where just about everyone would have benefited from getting out a little bit more.

Turning to his journals, we can see that Bennett was involved with the rehearsals for production of his novel Riceyman Steps (now there’s a novel that could “knock the stuffing out of the boys and girls”). On the 20th of November he wrote of his visit to the Ambassadors Theatre:

We rehearsed until 3.5 p.m. and then ate a good snack of chicken, tongue, and salad and admirable claret, in [leading actor] Leon M. Lion’s dressing room.

On the 25th of November Dorothy Bennett, his partner, returned from the first performance and he wrote:

She arrived home shortly before 6, with a very gloomy account of it…the audience was chilled and not at all responsive; in short, that the thing was a failure.

The play ran for six matinee performances before closing.

 

 

The doctor will see you now.

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, H. G. Wells’ Tono Bungay, published in 1909.

After a luncheon party at the Carlton Hotel in 1918, Hugh Walpole noted a remark made by Joseph Conrad to H.G.Wells:

The difference between us Wells, is fundamental. You don’t care for humanity but think they are to be improved. I love humanity but know they are not!

Having read Tono-Bungay I know what he means. However, you do not have to read it to know what he means. It would help if you had read Conrad’s Lord Jim, however. We are, we learn from it, condemned to make the same mistakes, time and time again. But that does not mean we are bad people. The best we can get from Tono-Bungay is that one is born every minute and the future seems to lie in the building of fast ships. I’m afraid you will have to read it to know what that means. Be that as it may, and it is quite a lot of being and maying, the point I wish to make is that using the tried and tested Which-Early-Twentieth-Century-Author-Would-I-Want-At-My-Deathbed technique, it is Conrad whom I would wish to see (Disraeli on his deathbed declined a visit from Queen Victoria, saying that she would merely ask him to take a message to Albert).

Tono Bungay - first edition published 1909.

Tono Bungay – first edition published 1909.

Ward Clark, writing in The Bookman, noted of the author of Tono-Bungay:

As a socialist, Mr. Wells knows the centralising tendency of of modern industry; is he trying to crush the small dealer by establishing a mammoth department store novel in which everyone can find everything he needs? Victorian romance, near the entrance, tragedy – take the elevator, top floor; comedy, in the basement, science and sociology, on the bargain counter; a tempting display of realism in the drug department.

The North American Review added:

This is not merely something written to exploit theories or politics; it is not even a mere transcript of life; it is a Book.

All of which begs the question, at least it does for me, as to why no one writes reviews like this anymore? If they did, I might read more of them.

At the centre of the book, if indeed, as the above review suggests, it can be said to have a centre, is the invention by the narrator’s uncle of the patent medicine Tono-Bungay. The 1868 Pharmaceutical Act had extended the legal controls that had been developing since the 1850s to prohibit the over-the-counter sale of cyanide, arsenic and strychnine. Prudent social legislation or political correctness gone made, depending on your point of view. The 1868 Act extended those controls to opium and morphine. Doctors supported such a ban. Pharmacists, while glad to stop the public drinking arsenic willy-nilly, demurred when thinking of the loss in sales. The Poor panicked, wondering how they would get through each day without their opium and morphine (panicking also were middle-class women trapped in loveless, unfulfilling marriages).

You can see their point of view. If you could afford to go to the doctor, the best he could do for you would be to amputate a limb, strap up a broken limb or stitch a wound (probably on a limb). When it came to limbs you were, if you’ll pardon the phrase, in good hands. Anything else was in the lap of the gods. Doctors didn’t even wash their hands between examinations until Louis Pasteur told them to. Opium and morphine at least masked symptoms and dulled pain, hence their place in any recipe for patent medicines. But years do follow years, stealing something every day until at last they steal us from ourselves. At the turn of the century more than likely from a bad chest, as the graph shows:

Graph showing most common causes of death in England and Wales - 1908, 1949, 2010. Source: 'Olympic Britain' House of Commons Library.

Graph showing most common causes of death in England and Wales – 1908, 1949, 2010. Source: ‘Olympic Britain’ House of Commons Library.

Pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis were the killers then, followed closely by measles and whooping cough. We, on the other hand, with Progress firing on all cylinders, will die of cancer and heart disease.

However, literary taste there was and a surprising amount of it in the novel. Wells, like Conrad, could write. He does not bore even though he cannot help but preach. A healthy (5,4) is prescribed along with a bracing tonic wine.

Health and beauty.

Next, the essays of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who when scalded with hot coffee as a young boy answered the anxious hostess’ question as to the pain answered “Thank you madam, the agony is abated.”

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