It’s the little things that count

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.

When I was a student at university in the 1980s there were no courses on middlebrow literature, the term given to popular novels published in English between 1900 and 1950. I studied history so I can’t say for certain how the English literature courses were structured but I shared digs with a student who was studying Beowulf and Old English. I imagine the degree would then have taken him through Chaucer, Milton, Austen, Hardy and ending at Woolf. Times have changed. The Middlebrow Network website lists 36 academics as either core members or as sitting on the advisory board. Kate Macdonald, writing in a post called Why studying middlebrow matters commented on the reasons for this change in literary studies:

The study of English literature has been enlarging its boundaries radically in the past thirty years. My private theory is that the increase in the numbers of people studying at university level in Britain since the 1990s means that we need more and new research subjects for the ever-rolling stream of PhD students. The academy’s capacity for writing dissertations on Shakespeare, Woolf and Hughes was becoming exhausted under traditional terms of scrutiny. Something happened to allow literary criticism to widen its borders. Now, we study not just what people read, but how people read, why they read, what they thought about what they read, and the marginalia printed all around the important things that people read, which they also read, and were changed by, without noticing. The traditional authors and works are still studied, but the overflow is accommodated most creatively through middlebrow studies.

Middlebrow studies is now a Thing. A Good Thing, in my opinion. From reading Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, Borges and Calvino in my twenties, I have returned to the reading tastes of my childhood when I read Biggles novels, the novels of Roman Britain written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, children’s classics such as Stig of the Dump and more modern children’s novels such as A Dog So Small: that is to say, popular fiction. One Thing has replaced another Thing, because this Thing is quite clearly not that Thing.

But not quite. I began reading Arnold Bennett’s Evening Standard reviews with the belief that I would quickly find myself reading the popular novels of the 1920s: those “shockers” that Buchan claimed he wrote. What have I read so far? A tragedy set in an upper class rural family emotionally-at-sea; a tragedy set in eighteenth century Germany that exposed the brutal consequences of anti-semitism and a Russian folktale. And now, I am reading Sacheverell Sitwell’s The Cyder Feast, a collection of self-published poems that link us with the rural world described lovingly in the Georgics of Virgil.

Osbert and Edith Sitwell

From left to right  Sir Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969), Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988). — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Of the poet, Bennett wrote in his review of the 16th of June, 1927:

I have for years maintained that Sacheverell Sitwell is one of the most original poets of his generation…His mind is not only original but lovely. He never writes anything of which you could positively assert that it was not distinguished. He experiences sensations, and he gets effects, which, so far as my knowledge goes, nobody ever experienced or got before. I derive a most exciting pleasure from his work.

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Frontspiece of The Cyder Feast

Compare Bennett’s review with the comments made by Emanuel Eisenberg in The Bookman in the November of that year. Speaking of the three Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – he wrote:

They are all insufferable poets — insufferable minor poets, I mean, and minor poetry rarely becomes unbearable to me, since I can usually find a transient pleasure in efficiency of manufacture.

Or this from Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review in the June of 1928.

Apart from a dissonance or two, an inverted image, a strained and dislocated adjective, these horticultural verses might have been written in the eighteenth century as well as (and possibly better than) the twentieth.

And that from someone who quite liked the book.

Bennett’s talent, as far as I can make it out from these reviews, is that he looked at Everything, rather than that Thing or this Thing. Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Sitwell (Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell), Kafka were given the same once-over he would give to Forster, Chesterton, Warner or Bates. If he did not understand what he had had read he did not hold it against the author. Eisenberg and Untermeyer’s beef was that The Cyder Feast was not modern enough. Bennett would not have dwelt on the issue. His concern was promoting the best in literature to as wide an audience as possible, be it traditional or modernist.

What did I make of The Cyder Feast. In answer I will quote this from Bennett’s review:

…when somebody comes along and says that he cannot understand Sacheverell Sitwell, I sympathise with that somebody. There is a certain amount of Sacheverell Sitwell that I do not understand, or only half understand.

I did well with the first twenty five poems, being the most Virgilian in nature, linking nature with architecture and history. After these poems, the words drifted delightfully into my mind and then delightfully out again.

bennett.jpg

Caricature of Arnold Bennett by Oliver Herford, found on The Project Gutenberg, clearly alluding to his prodigious output.

On the 15th of June, we get a glimpse in his journal of the working day of a bestselling British novelist of the 1920s: gets up early; breakfasts on fruit; observes his street from the balcony; writes 800 words by 12.15; lunches at the Reform Club; returns by bus; continues writing; theatre in the evening.

 

 

 

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Jew Süss by Lion Feuchtwanger

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, Jew Süss by Lion Feuchtwanger. 

On the 13th of January 1927, under the heading A Fine Historical Novel by a German Author, Bennett concluded that week’s review with:

Jew Suss is a splendid story, but it is also a complete picture of a complex social organism from top to bottom. It entertains, it enthrals, and simultaneously it teaches, it enlarges the field of knowledge.

To which I can only add. “Aye, that.”

Feuchtwanger, Lion

Lion Feuchtwanger britannica.com

The novel, written by Lion Feuchtwanger, was based on the events that took place in the German state of Württemberg in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Joseph Süß Oppenheimer was a Jewish banker who bankrolled Duke Karl Alexander, the state’s ruler; rose to dizzying heights of power and, as befits a morality tale, crashed to earth when his luck ran out.

The cover of the German edition wikipedia.org

 

It’s not always an easy read. The word “Jew” is used, in the mouths of the majority of the people in the novel, as a term of abuse. The range of characters is wide; to recognise them as they appear at different points in the novel is not easy. Feuchtwanger pulls no punches when discussing Imperial politics of the period or bringing into the weft of the novel some of the principal tenets of the Kabbalah.  But it is worth it, for it is a roller coaster of a read. Rarely have I read a book that has gripped me so strongly. I am deeply sentimental but this is one of the few books that has made me cry.

The Nazis, of course, burnt his books.

On the 11th of January, Bennet walked to the Carlton Hotel  to meet Colonel Fitzhugh Minnegerode, representative of New York Times, who told him an amusing anecdote about Gabrielle D’Annunzio. Earlier that week  he signed over the rights to all his performed plays to his partner Dorothy Cheston. The weather, I’m sure to the surprise of no one , was unsettled.

My apologies to the gap in entries. It resulted as a combination of the poor use of postcodes and worry over shelf space.

Hello to all this

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, Arnold Bennett, the Ministry of Information and Robert Graves.

Lord Beaverbrook, 1918 Source: www.warmuseum.ca

Lord Beaverbrook, 1918
Source: http://www.warmuseum.ca

In 1917 Arnold Bennett was invited to work in the Ministry of Information by Lord Beaverbrook. It is not clear what he did there as no records survived and Bennett was very discreet when writing about his job in his journals. We know that he worked hard and what he was working very hard at doing was making sure that everyone knew what utter bastards the Germans were.

First edition copy of Goodbye to All That. 1929.  Source: Wikipedia

First edition copy of Goodbye to All That. 1929.
Source: Wikipedia

Robert Graves, on the other hand, was trying not get killed by some of those Germans while serving in France as a young officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In 1929 his book Goodbye to All That was published which detailed many of his experiences while serving in the trenches. It was reviewed by Bennett in his column in The Evening Standard:

Goodbye to All That is a very good book, both picturesque and honest, and excellently written. Robert Graves is a fine poet – none better today, in my view. All poets write good prose, and he does.

Part of Bennett’s job in the Ministry of Information would have been to ensure that the core message of Britain Good, Germany Bad was reinforced in the world’s capitals. Not too difficult a job given the Germans’ propensity for sinking unprotected ships. In 1914 he had read the accounts of the rapid German advance through Belgium, a country that he admired and liked. He would have read too of the atrocities carried out by the German army against Belgian civilians, atrocities which Graves denied having ever taken place.

Where do we begin to unpick the ironies from this little encounter of two literary greats? On the one hand, Bennett, who only visited the front as an officially approved journalist and who ensured the official line was maintained, even in the dark days of Passchendaele in 1917 and the German spring offensive of 1918. And on the other, Graves, reviewed positively by Bennett, who had experienced at first hand life in the trenches but who laughed at the authenticity of the atrocity stories intended to bolster British resolve to see this terrible war through to the end. All the more ironic given that the atrocity stories were, in many, many cases, only too true.

Next time, we are off to the South Pole with Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.

Soon fades the spell, soon comes the night…

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, Lord Macaulay’s Critical and Historical Essays, published in the 1892 edition.

Does the man who wrote this of James the First of England and Sixth of Scotland, deserve to be remembered:

She [Elizabeth] died; and the kingdom passed to one who was, in his own opinion, the greatest master of king-craft that ever lived, but who was, in truth, one of those kings whom God seems to send for the express purpose of hastening revolutions?

Should we hold dear somewhere in our collective heart a man of whom it was written:

He combined so vivid an imagination with so solid a judgement, that if he had not been a great historian he might have passed down to posterity as a great poet; and whilst the amount of his intellectual welath would have overwhelmed a mind of less original power, with him it remained subordinate to the genius of the master?

Is there a place in the Zeitgeist for someone described, six years after his death,  thus:

He was a classic who had come out of romanticism, and who used the fire of the romantic school not as a fire is used by an incendiary, but as it is used in a forge?

To which, of course, the answer is a resounding ‘Aye!’ As to the question does history owe a debt of honour to a man described by The Times in October 1839, following his promotion to the post of Minister for War, as Mr. Babbletongue; or, in the words of Henry Brougham, co-founder in 1802 of  The Edinburgh Review:

…the greatest bore that ever yet appeared?

The answer is an equally resounding ‘Naw, it disnae!”

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Lord Macualay 1800-1859. Source: Wikipedia

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Lord Macualay 1800-1859.
Source: Wikipedia

Buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, at the feet of Thomas Addison, the Critical and Historical Essays of Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, are no longer handed out as prizes as they were to the Plymouth shipwright apprentices in July, 1884. (Rear Admiral Herbert had scathing words for those apprentices who had not used their six years in the shipyards to prepare fully for their exams – as always it seemed to be the fault of a small group of idle students leading their companions astray. G.T.Chivers was not one of these. He walked away with British Battles (3 vols),  Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (3 vols) as well as Macaulay’s Essays)

Macaulay’s failure to stand the test of time rose, in part from being dead, but also from having written using, what was to be called by later historians, the Whig theory of history. The term was made famous by Herbert Butterfield in his 1931 essay The Whig Interpretation of History. Of the Whig historians, he wrote

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present.

Macaulay is mentioned only twice in the essay but having written in his own Essays:

The history of England is emphatically the history of progress,

it is clear that from where he stood (a short, stout man he may as well have stayed sitting) in the England of first half of the nineteenth century, an unbroken line ran from the defenders of parliamentary rights in the reign of Charles 1st to, well, himself. From our viewpoint  (sitting or standing) in the 21st century, our view obscured by world wars, industrial depression and financial crises, it is difficult perhaps to accept unquestioningly the use of that word “emphatically.”

But history is nothing if not ironic. A quick search of Ngram shows how much his fame has faded:

Down, down and deeper down.

However, search for the Whig interpretation of history and hey presto:

Well, well, well.

Apart from a dip in the late 1930s when the British government’s policy of appeasement towards Hitler was emphatically not a sign of progress, the Whig interpretation of history continues to be studied and written about. But Macaulay, for all his wonderful prose, is not read. For that reason, the loneliness which comes with being among those that have read him, an equally lonely (5,8) is plotted.

The loneliness of the long distance reader.

Next time, Trollope, Framley Parsonage and interactive tithe maps. Oh yes.

It’s graphtastic, Mr. Bennett!

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, what can we learn from Google Trends? 

You may have noticed that I have an interest in graphs. You may even remember a couple of posts that drew on the wonderful Google Ngram. But you were probably asking yourself: “Okay. Ngram is all very well for looking into changes in the zeitgeist. But what about short term changes? What about trends? Isn’t there something that would show that?” Well, damn my eyes, there is! Google Trends. Do a search for Middlebrow and we end up with this:

Middlebrow

Highbrow:

Highbrow

Lowbrow:

Lowbrow

The letters refer to newspaper or magazine articles that led to a spike in that trend. For example D on the Middlebrow graph is an article in The New Yorker; F on the Highbrow graph is a Times Of India article on the highbrow prejudice against Enid Blyton and G on the Lowbrow graph is a San Diego Union Tribune article, Lauding the Lowbrow.

To get the full detail, including predictions, regional interest and related items here are the web pages:

Middlebrow

Highbrow

Lowbrow

When we combine all three we end up with this:

HIghbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow.

Middlebrow is that far below the other two, the peaks have flattened out and the media references have vanished. You can get the full results here (given that I wrote this post over the period of five days, the graphs may differ in detail but not in substance):

Combined

When we compare authors from each, Henry Green (high), Arnold Bennett (middle) and Zane Grey (low), we end up with this:

Three Musketeers

Check it out here:

Authors

Or in the case of Elizabeth Von Arnim (middle), Barbara Cartland (low) and Viriginia Woolf (high) we get this:

More Musketeers

Full results here:

Authors

Whichever way we cut the cake, the result is the same. It may be a highbrow cake with a lowbrow filling, but someone forgot to sprinkle it with middlebrow icing sugar. Middlebrow is not trending.

All is not lost. If we look at the results for Henry Green there is, I believe, a clue as to how to lift the middlebrow into a trending topic. New editions of Henry Green’s novels were published by Vintage in 2005, the year that saw his maximum trending peak of 100. In September The Guardian published an article by Sebastian Faulks on Henry Green. Sebastian Faulks had also written the introduction to the Vintage single-volume edition of Living, Loving and Party Going. Coincidence? Well, graphs based on a solid statistical base don’t lie. Also, have a look Virginia Woolf’s trending graph. It’s not as strong as it appears. It’s hit a bit of a plateau in the last couple of years. With that kind of vulnerability, it would almost be impolite not to launch an Elizabeth Von Arnim cultural counter attack.

So, here, in broad brushstrokes, is the middlebrow trending plan.

1. Reissue the works of a middlebrow author and include an introduction by a celebrity author. What happened with Elizabeth Taylor’s centenary this year? Were her works reissued by the Folio Society? Did Emily Griffin write the introduction? Exactly. A golden opportunity lost. What about Elizabeth Smart? She was born in 1913. Is she middlebrow? Would Marina Warner write an introduction?

2. Get the BBC on board. Given the academic interest in the middlebrow, is a programme on In Our Time too much to hope for? Has someone got Melvyn Bragg’s phone number? How about Book at Bedtime? If there’s anything suited to its format, surely its a work from the golden age of the middlebrow.

3. Design an app for the iPhone. The one that springs to mind is one based on Arnold Bennett’s fictional Five Towns. It could guide you though Stoke-on-Trent and highlight the principal settings for his novels. But there must be other middlebrow authors that lend themselves to an app.

Naturally, I have no idea how to go about any of this.

Next time, we return to the secure world of Britain in World War Two.

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. 
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