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

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


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.

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:

Book cover forThe Ruin. Source:

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.



2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,300 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 38 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts.


My novel has a brand new cover and also some very nice reviews: five and four stars on Amazon and five 5 stars on Goodreads. I’d be delighted to send a copy to anyone who’d like to review it for their blog. Please drop me an email at acityofghostsATgmailDOTcom. You can find the Amazon reviews here.

Eight graphs in search of an answer

Have I got a real graphathon in store for you graphateers! Eight, that’s right – eight, graphs! I may even have a conclusion too. Just who the heck bought all those books in the nineteenth century?

William Gladstone (1809-19898), prime minister on four occasions, had he looked back on his century would have wondered how there was space for everyone to fit on the country. In his lifetime the population of Great Britain almost doubled:

Population growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring

Population growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring

It was also a much wealthier country, as measured by GDP, and not by our Dickensian images of urban poverty:

Nominal GDP growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring

Nominal GDP growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring

Wages, after a rocky start at the beginning of the century and following the victory over Napoleon, either kept inline with prices or, after 1850, often ahead of them:

Changes in prices and wages 1790-1914. Source: 'A History of the Cost of Living' John Burnett

Changes in prices and wages 1790-1914. Source: ‘A History of the Cost of Living’ John Burnett

Railways covered the country. The bursting of the railway bubble in the 1840s was followed by a second burst of railway building in the 1860s and every decade until the First World War, more line was laid:

Construction of railway lines  1827-1910. Source: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Construction of railway lines 1827-1910. Source: National Bureau of Economic Research.

As a result transport costs dropped by 97% (and all the clocks marked noon at the same time throughout the country):

Freight costs shillings per ton mile 1800 - 1865. Source:  'The Transport Revolution in Industrializing Britain: A Survey' Dan Bogart-

Freight costs shillings per ton mile 1800 – 1865. Source: ‘The Transport Revolution in Industrializing Britain: A Survey’ Dan Bogart-

At the same time literacy rates, as measured as bridegrooms and brides who could sign their own names, rose. In the case of women, almost doubling:

Literacy rates among bridegrooms and brides 1841-1900. Source:

Literacy rates among bridegrooms and brides 1841-1900. Source:

More people, more wealth, a national railway network, falling transport costs, rising wages and more people who could read all had their impact on the world of books. From being the preserve of the rich, they became available to, well, almost everyone:

Price Structure of Books Published 1811-1895. Source:

Price Structure of Books Published 1811-1895. Source:

With more to choose from:

Published Titles Listed in 'Publishers' Circular' 1840-1901. Source:

Published Titles Listed in ‘Publishers’ Circular’ 1840-1901. Source:

People chose novels. As the graph shows, although they may have attended church every Sunday, unlike their grand parents at the beginning of the century, they did not want to read about it:

Market share by genre 1814-1899. Source:

Market share by genre 1814-1899. Source:

So, these are the statistics behind the publishing successes of Dickens, Trollope, Oliphant, Hardy, Gissing, Butler and Eliot; and the even greater, but largely forgotten, successes of Annie S. Swan, Florence Marryat and Frederick William Robinson. A cultural revolution in which the people decided they wanted, above all, to be entertained by what they read.

Are the any flies in that particular ointment? I certainly hope so. If memory serves me right (and it never has up to now) Arthur Marwick in his study of the changes wrought to British society in the First World War, The Deluge, calculated the size of the middle class prior to 1914 as 10 or 11%, approximately 4,600,000 people. That comes to less than the population of Madrid in 2013 and expressed thus, seems too small a statistic with which to factor in to explain the publishing revolution of the previous century. Go further back and it seems even less certain as a cause for the rise of the moderately priced novel. In The History of the Cost Living, John Burnett numbers as 300,000 the new professional class who in the 1850s

constituted the risk-takers and innovators who made the major economic decisions on which Victorian prosperity rested.

Are 300,000 businessmen, industrialists, scientists, metallurgists, bankers and accountants enough to kickstart a middle class literary revolution? Simon Elliot in Some Patterns and Trends in British Publishing 1800-1919 argued that:

[this] simple fact ising population and increasing literacy] alone cannot account for the size and nature of the increase recorded [of book sales in the United Kingdom]

So, probably not.

Possibly it was all to do with purchasing power. The young married couple mentioned by Burnett, living in London, no children, had £200 a year left out of an income of £700 (worth in 2013 £16,200 and  £59,000 respectively) allowing them to not only buy whatever book they wanted but also enjoy a dozen oysters at 1/- and a bottle of champagne at 6/- 6d. An urban workman in 1902-3, weekly wage 29/- 10d (£125 in 2013), after spending 22/- 6d on the weekly food budget still had 7/- 4d (£30.70). Enough perhaps to buy an occasional 1/- Yellowback from a W.H.Smith bookstall in a railway station. Our man Arnold Bennett, on the other hand, grew up in a middle class household (by virtue of his father qualifying as a solicitor when Arnold was nine) with few books. Had he grown up in a working class household, as a previous post showed, there would equally have been no guarantee that he would have grown up surrounded by, at least, the best sellers of the day. The English common reader: a social history of the mass reading public, 1800-1900 has been on my Alibris wishlist for a while. Perhaps it is time to buy it.

Next time. H.G.Wells’ Tono Bungay has been read and a graph will be plotted.

It’s a fair cop gov but I blame that Bentley geezer…

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, E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913.

Trent's Last Case

Writing in the The Saturday Review of August the 3rd, 1929, Dorothy L.Sayers, commenting on the few times that love has featured in the detective novel, wrote:

E. C. Bentley in “Trent’ s Last Case,” has dealt finely with the still harder problem of the detective in love. Trent’s love for Mrs. Manderson is a legitimate part of the plot; while it does not prevent him from drawing the proper conclusion from the evidence before him, it does prevent him from acting upon his conclusions, and so prepares the way for the real explanation. Incidentally, the love story is handled artistically and with persuasive emotion.

Under the heading of THE PLANTATION MURDER, the Derby Daily Telegraph of Tuesday the 24th, 1913, was this report:

William Burton, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Winifred Mary Mitchell in a plantation at Gussage St.Michael was executed at Dorchester Prison this morning.

Burton walked firmly to the scaffold and maintained an indifferent demeanour. He made a full confession to the vicar of Gussage.

Local English newspapers were filled with these brief accounts of murder, trial and execution. 1913, the year in which Trent’s Last Case was published, was as marked as any other year by the repetition of these three sentences of human experience at its most bleak: John Vickers Amos, guilty of the murder of two policemen and a woman, hung by Pierrepoint, at Newcastle Gaol; Jeannie Baxter accused of murdering the aviator Julian Bernard Hall by shooting him and, in Allalabad in India, Lieutenant Clark confessed that it was he, and not Mrs. Fulham, who murdered Mr. Fulham by giving him antipyrine, a toxic analgesic, (the jury found them both guilty: he was hung, she died in prison a year later). True, the Derby Daily Telegraph, three years earlier, had reported in detail the arrest, trial and execution of Dr.Crippen. But he was, well, Dr.Crippen. Unlike the execution of William Burton the report of Crippen’s execution included the fact that he was given a seven foot drop, a detail that my dad always mentioned when talking about reports of executions he had read as a child.

The homicide rate per 100,000 in England and Wales in 1913 was 0.91 (the current U.K. homicide rate is 1.2; in 1913 in the U.S.A. it was 6.1/100,000). Which in a graph looks like this:

Homicide Rate England and Wales

So, Bentley was writing at a time when, overall, the homicide rate was dropping. If we turn to the country he lived in:

Buy phonographs!

We can see it is a country of growing prosperity (as measured by the purchase of phonographs, cameras and bicycles and so on). Perhaps that is why the run-of-the-mill murders merited only a paragraph in the English provincial press (even exotic murderers, such as Lieutenant Clark – the press felt obliged to describe him as “Eurasian” – were only given this space). England was secure enough to look on murder as something that happened to other people, and very often not the best sort of people at that.

But despite this prosperity and security Bentley did write Trent’s Last Case and it was a success. It is possible, of course, that Edwardian stability could easily lend itself to a delight in the sordid, just as in the 1920s, which saw a further fall in the homicide rate, instability could just as easily lend itself to the sordid as long as someone came along to set it all right again. On the other hand, the Victorians loved being scared silly by stories in the press of murder, violence and plots to take over the world, or least as laid out in The Battle of Dorking (1871), the invasion of England. As the poor continued to traipse through the courts (women forming a disproportionately large group, normally for repeated offences of petty theft and prostitution) there was added that extra frisson of social unrest that arose from this newly defined criminal class. Trent’s Last Case, published twelve years after the death of Queen Victoria,  in which the poor, the working classes, the middle classes, journalists (apart from Trent), the police, the judiciary and the penal system appear only briefly or not at all, would have allowed a reader a literary account of violent death, madness and a metaphor of a jigsaw set badly put together.

From the letters written by Lieutenant Clark and Mrs. Fulham they were, if not in love, in a passionate, and ultimately, murderous relationship. This did not stop Mrs. Fulham from offering to turn King’s Evidence and testify against her lover (the offer was rejected). The case was infamous in its day (an account of it was written by Sir Cecil Walsh, King’s Counsel) but it seemed to play more in the metropolitan and colonial press than in the provinces. In the case of the murder of Winifred Mary Mitchell by William Burton we can be certain that no one, as Trent was want to do, quoted from Keats or Shelley. It was fragments from her false teeth that led police to her grave (Burton had shot her in the face with a shotgun when she threatened to speak publicly about their relationship – one of many he had pursued with women in the village). What would be the appropriate line of poetry to quote when a decomposing and faceless corpse is being dug up?

Am I missing the point here? Am I forgetting Bentley’s friendship with G. K. Chesterton, writer of the Father Brown stories, and his challenge to Bentley to write of a flawed detective? Have I misunderstood the literary themes underpinning Dorothy L. Sayers’ comments quoted above? No. Am I willfully missing all of these points? Ah, that is a horse of a different colour.

Our man Bennett was an admirer of the thrillers written by Edgar Wallace, not least because they featured policemen who knew what they were doing. One of his complaints of the many crime novels he reviewed in the 1920s was that the detectives that featured in them were:

…lacking in all human characteristics save the minor and comparatively rare characteristics of self conceit, blindness to the obvious, and perfect idiocy.

In an article published in The Saturday Review on the 26th of September, 1931 Christopher Morley questioned if Trent’s Last Case, along with The Lady in White, was one of the best crime novels ever written. He suggested that A Study in Scarlet, The Red House Mystery or the wonderfully titled Seven Keys to Baldpate were perhaps its equals. He also included Dashiell Hammett in that list. Along with Georges Simeon he is my favourite crime writer. Their detectives, private and professional, have right on their side, you might say righteousness. Sam Spade’s righteousness, I would argue, is Old Testament in nature while Inspector Maigret’s is much more New Testament. Perhaps that is why, given the chance, I would invite Trent into the Library, point to the loaded revolver on the table, remind him that as a gentleman he would know what is expected of him, close the door behind me and wait for a single gunshot.

No literary taste here then, instead I cast him over into Virginia Woolf territory. (3,9) seems a suitable punishment.

Firm but fair.

Next time, I ask Elizabeth Bowen what she did in the (Second World) War (she wrote English Novelists in the Britain in Pictures series)?

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.

Matthew Arnold: Secret Agent

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. I am currently reading Matthew Arnold’s Essays. It’s taking longer than expected so rather than post nothing I have come up with this. 

In 1858, after seven years of marriage, Matthew Arnold moved into what was then called a small house in Chester Square, London. It would now be called “worth a million pounds.” Still a relatively new housing development when Matthew Arnold moved in, it had up to the 1820s been an area of lagoons and the haunt of footpads and robbers. Lagoons, I always feel, are the British equivalent of Indian graveyards (on which American middle class families insist on building their homes – always with dire results). It would be pleasing to think of the heavily side-whiskered Arnold doing combat with a resurrected Grendel or indeed aliens emerging from his cellars. His ability to quote widely and wittily in Latin and Greek would doubtless come in useful. “Sic semper tyrannis” he would mutter as he empties his Beaumont Adams revolver into the quivering tentacles of the alien leader. Half way to Chelsea there was even a pub appropriately called The Monster, which was reached via a cabbage patch.

If not a fighter of monsters and aliens, why not a private detective? As an  inspector of schools for thirty five years, he was noted as knowing more about the timetables, stations and trains of England than most men. What better opportunity for the solving of crimes the length and breadth of the country (especially those involving trains)? He could once more empty his trusty Beaumont Adams revolver into the chest of Randolph Churchill as he attempts to bundle Queen Victoria onto the Dover train, the first step in his mad plan to make her Empress of his African Empire; or arrest John Ruskin as he smuggles Turner’s smutty pictures to Paris on the ferry train to Folkestone. In his book Portraits of the Seventies, George Russell speaks warmly of the dinners at Arnold’s house in Chester Square. Where better to share his adventures with his friends and companions George Buckle, Herbert Paul and George Augustus as they drink their port?

Not quite Flashman nor the current on-line comic adventures of Babbington and Lovelace, but it would be nice to think there would be a market for a nineteenth century crime-solving/monster-slaughtering Oxford Professor of Poetry with impressive side-whiskers. Some of the above is true. Much of it is not. There is certainly enough to horrify the ghost of one great and possibly neglected literary figure.

Handy in a fight?

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Bennett versus Woolf. 

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

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

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

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

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

The elephant in the living room

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is included. This week Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden, first published in 1928. 

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

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

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

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

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