Crime and upsetting the middle classes

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, Edgar Wallace’s The Gunner. 

At last, after months of reading works of literary highbrow as recommended by Arnold Bennet, a bona fide piece of middlebrow, perhaps even lowbrow, fiction! On the 19th July 1928, Bennett wrote that he had startled his friends by admitting to having read, and enjoyed, the popular thriller The Gunner, written by Edgar Wallace. Such was the novelty of reading a popular work of fiction, he asked his friends their opinions:

The general attitude was: “Have I read Edgar Wallace? Good heavens! What do you take me for?

Bennett’s explanation for this reaction is that:

Nearly all bookish people are snobs, and especially the most enlightened of them.

Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace smoking downwards. From

Bennett was taken with the book, to such an extent that he devoted the whole review to it when normally it would be shared between two or three books. He wrote:

In The Gunner something sinister and exciting is continually afoot. The amount of incident to the page is prodigious, and to the chapter is incalculable. Often, when you think that the author’s inventive powers must be exhausted, he will suddenly change the scene – and in the middle of a chapter too! – and start anew as fresh as if he had risen up from twelve hours of dreamless sleep.

What did I make of it? For a study of London’s underworld I found it very genteel. Every example of slang – carrying a gat, the busies, squeal – is explained to the middle-class characters whose lives have been turned upside-down through the suicide of a young man fallen in with a bad ‘un. Violence and death are threatened frequently but rarely realised. Deaths do happen but if memory serves me well, only twice and one of those seems to have left the writer feeling it best to leave it unexplained as he himself would be hard put to even give the victim a name. In fact, while one member of the working classes is killed, the middle class characters are merely frightened or upset. By the end of the novel, order is restored and even the Gunner, – named because of his habit of carrying one but, it would seem, loath to use -succumbs to middle-class pressures and conforms. Reader, he married her.

I wonder what Bennett would have made of Dashiell Hammett’s blood-soaked Red Harvest? It was published only a year later and I cannot help but feel its influence on crime writing has been immeasurably more than The Gunner. 


Cover of the American edition. Given that women in 1920s Britain did not dress like this and that guns are rare creatures in the novel, it would be fair guess to say that the artist never read the book.

In fashion news, The Glasgow Herald of the same day noted that brown, although associated with daytime wear, was becoming important for the evening too. Brown evening frocks were being displayed in the latest collections in shades of taffeta, lace and tulle. The aim was studied simplicity in the use of large bows and long ends of caramel moira.

Arnold Bennett wrote in his journal that he had finished his novel Accident and, as was frequently the case, was not happy with it. Nor was he happy with George Arliss’ scenario for the stage production of Lord Raingo. However, he seemed much happier that evening when he dined at the Garrick Club – “Very merry, this affair,” he wrote. “Some great stories.”

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.”

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)?

Arnold Bennett: of the people, for the people but not necessarily known by the people.

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, Sheffield and the Well Equipped Worker.
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:,, 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


I once tried to explain Mass Observation to a Spaniard.

-Ah, came the reply. Spies.

It’s not as if Spain knows nothing of collecting social data. The Instituto Nacional de Estadística collects data on just about everything (for example, it was a matter of minutes to find out that last year seventy seven books on the natural sciences were published in Gallego) but therein lies the problem. It all adds up to a big bunch of numbers that are carefully recorded, stored and forgotten. There is little or no analysis. The British, on the other hand, can’t get enough of what their neighbours think, say, eat, read and what they do at the weekends. For a private and reserved people we are incredibly curious about the people that live across the road, preferably over two or three generations.

Before Mass Observation there was Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1899) and in 1851 the three volumes of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor were published. They formed part of the social reforming movement that grew up as a result of the worst excesses of industrialisation in the cities and towns of Britain. Thus they focused on the living conditions of the poorest in society and less on their dreams and aspirations. An exception to this was a book published in 1919, The Equipment of the Workers, issued under the aegis of the St Philips Settlement Education and Economics Research Society.

The authors asked a simple question: “What are the Workers going to do now the War is over?” One thing they were not going do was return to six day working weeks and poor living conditions. The men returning from the trenches would be

…less docile in behavior; more ambitious in outlook

Fine words but as we all know to our cost, they rarely butter parsnips. Apart from forming nearly eighty percent of the British population who were these workers? What did they want? What did they think? Were they Bolsheviks ready to plant the Red Flag over Buck House? Over eight hundred of them, men and women, were interviewed in Sheffield and after studying the results this is what the authors concluded:

A quarter of the interviewees (the Well-Equipped) showed that they were ready for the new world of the 1920s, a world of Education built upon a spirit of renewal. As for the rest, the authors did not

…regard the bulk of the Inadequately Equipped workers as capable of responsible and thoughtful participation in political affairs

Politics was, for all the calls for nationalisation and central control of the press, merely the means by which this New World of Spirit would be established and maintained. So large a group of workers left to fester in their ignorance would lead very quickly to large numbers of them shimmying up flag poles with red flags clamped in their teeth.

What to do? For a start they could bloody well know who Arnold Bennett was. As part of the section of the questionnaire called Data Required To Indicate X’s Love of Beauty, and apart from describing the floor, the interviewer had to ask how many writers, musicians and artists from a list the interviewee could recognise. Second from the top, under Beethoven but above G.K.Chesterton, was Arnold Bennett. Hoppitt, a sign writer, one of the well equipped could not; nor could Youngson, a fitter; Quain, married with six children, knew who he was but had not read him, nor had he read much of anything. Finlayson, a sixty year old gas fitter had a hazy knowledge of Chesterton, Wells and Shaw but of Bennett, he knew nothing. Miss Palfrey, 18 years old, living at home, munitions worker, weekly visitor to the cinema, knew that Ruskin was a lover of beautiful things and that Bennett was a writer. Mrs Quarles, 28, Liberal supporter, not a lover of poetry, knew nothing of Chesteron, Wells, Morris, Shaw or Bennett.

Dalson, however, was the shining star. An engine tenter (he tended a fixed engine in a works, factory or mine), he was twenty seven, married and had one child. Apart from a clean floor, his love of beauty could also be seen in the score of Bennett novels he had read. As a guide to building his own library he used Bennett’s Literary Taste, borrowing the books from the public library and the Workers’ Education Association and making synopses of them. One of eight children born to uneducated but loving parents, he had left school at thirteen to bring money into the home. He had read Plato and wanted to ‘get onto’ Wordsworth and Shelley. As the twenties progressed, and the Age of Education and Spirit was not implanted into England, what became of him? Did he discover Lawrence, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf and Lewis? Was he disappointed with Bennett’s later work? Did he buy Penguin paperbacks as he moved into middle age? Did he die of influenza? Bennett would have been interested in him. As for the modernists and the Jazz Age Bright Young Things, is it too flippant to write that they would have asked him to use the tradesmen’s entrance? More than likely it is, so I shall.

No graph today. It will return in the next post on Stella Benson’s The Little World.

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