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.


The Bennett family home in Cobridge – pen drawing by Neville Malkin – source


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.


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:

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 21.02.25

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.



Putting the text into Textals.

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 the Textal app can do for you. Oh, and for you too.

After Google Ngrams and Google Trends  comes the wonderful iPhone App Textal. As the developer’s introduction puts it:

Textal is a free smartphone app that allows you to analyze websites, tweet streams, and documents, as you explore the relationships between words in the text via an intuitive word cloud interface. You can generate graphs and statics, as well as share the data and visualizations in any way you like.

It’s easy to use and gives you words clouds that look like this:

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayThis was generated using Arnold Bennett’s self-help book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, first published in 1910, and it is very intuitive, as you can see. You can build a more detailed picture by selecting a word from the cloud, for example, focusing on the word literature we can see that:

Statistics Or what about those collocations:


Word pairings? Why, the work of a moment:


And, of course, my own favourite – the graph:


I wrote a piece about How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. Running that through Textal produced the following cloud:

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day blog post

I’m not sure why the colours but it was after an update and I imagine they show correspondence in the use of words in the text. Now the fun begins. Looking back at the word cloud for Bennett’s book, and passing over the core comprising of words such as one, will and time, it is words such as business and programme that stand out. Not surprising, given that Bennett was writing the book for the growing class of white-collar workers. Looking at the word cloud for my post, it is literary, family, Virginia (Woolf) and servant that stand out. Not surprising, given that I was using Bennett’s book to point out the part played by servants in British society in the opening decades of the twentieth century. And having a go at Virginia Woolf, of course. Do the Textal word clouds point to a wilful misunderstanding on my part of Bennett’s book? Speaking for myself, I would be surprised if it was otherwise.

Should an application such as Textal be used with care, keeping in mind the need at all times for context and the widest perspective possible? Of course it should. But if experience shows us anything, it is that genies do tend to jump out of bottles at the earliest opportunity.

Next time, graphs to show the state of my literary taste.

What do we want? Two hours! When do we want them? Later!

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’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

As one of the most memorable but least literary of literary quotes, Arnold Bennett’s comment to his friend George Sturt that  ‘I believe I could fart sensation fiction now’ must be up there with the best of them. I do like to think James Joyce would have laughed. Virginia Woolf? A pursing of the lips perhaps. In his defence, and given his journalist background – he was a contributor to and editor of a women’s magazine – he was used to churning out words, the totals noted in the margin and shared with his friends. 100,000 words in six months was par for course; and after the success of The Old Wives’ Tale many of his subsequent books and plays were bestsellers, although now largely forgotten.

Literary Taste: How to Form It falls into his early farting phase of writing, when he was both trying to make a name for himself and earn some money. How to Live on 24 Hours was another book from this period, written quickly, selling well and, unlike many of his literary bestsellers, still hanging around today, out there in Internetland. I read it and, as always, have misunderstood it, forgetting his lengthy comments on how we waste time, which form much of the book, and concentrating, as always, on what is easy – namely, get up two hours before you usually do.

Developing this lack of understanding on my part I then downloaded the TimeLogger app and logged my time on my iPhone, looking for these extra two hours that I could use to write. And, of course, I made some graphs. 

Did you know that I spent 5.7% of my time on public transport, 0.4% of my time at the pictures and 2.3% looking at the amusing photos of animals on Buzzfeed? Well, unfortunately I do; and at the end of all this data logging I was none the wiser as to why I seemed unable to find time to get anything written, which was one of the reasons I had read the book in the first place.

There are two reasons for this, I believe (three if you count my capacity for laziness). Bennett writes of rising two hours before leaving for  work at nine o’clock. By then I have been at work for an hour having got up at a ridiculously early hour. Second, in his description of the return home he fails to mention picking up the dry cleaning, popping out for a pint of milk or leg of lamb, racking your brains as to what to cook for the family, conversation with various family members (face-to-face and via Skype) or simply staring into space as you get the mince out of your heid (as they would say in Glasgow); for the simple reason that he didn’t have to – a servant would have done it.

A British family in 1851 with an income of  £150 p.a. would have been in the position of being able to employ a servant. £150 would in 2012 be worth £12,000 (purchasing power as calculated by MeasuringWorth) so the economic and social level at which a family could employ a servant was much lower that one might think. By 1881 1.25 million British women were working as domestic servants. Despite the social changes that arose from the First World War, domestic servants were still common in British homes into the 1920s and 30s.

Virginia Woolf’s mother set up home in 1867 with a cook, housemaids, parlour maids, a nurse, nursemaid and a gardner. Virginia learned to cook but still found time to have screaming matches with the servants. Arnold Bennett’s cook drank, the chauffeur was suspected of being a German spy and another member of staff had to go off on an explosives course in London (it was World War One, after all). No wonder he moved into the Royal Yacht Club. He just wanted to get some peace. So, perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much about my missing two hours and lack of servants and try to fart sensation fiction instead.

Rome is about to fall. Alaric, king of the Visigoths, is at the gates. The blog on Gibbons’ Decline and Fall will soon be written.

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