From one writer to another

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, A Writer’s Notes on his Trade by C. E. Montague. 

On the 13th of March 1930, Arnold Bennett wrote of A Writer’s Notes on his Trade:

It is a very good book. Some chapter-titles will give a fair notion of its contents: “Three ways of saying things,” “Easy reading hard writing.” “Too true to be good,” “Doing without workmanship,” “A living language.” all professional writers, and the innumerable legion of amateur writers, will immediately be attracted by these subjects, which Montague treats with love, ingenuity, knowledge, and wisdom. And my conviction is that a large proportion of the non-writing public would be attracted by them. I have no sympathy with the too prevalent writer’s tendency to despise the non-writing public.

It is a very good book, written by someone on the same wavelength as Bennett and capable, like Bennett of composing sentences as elegant as they are witty. Writing of the “tickled” – those that may never have been great students but enjoyed what they read – and the “untickled” – the studious but also unmoved by what they read – he commented:

The untickled may have won any number of scholarships and first classes but before they are thirty they are as dead to what they read in their youth as they are to the trousers in which they read it.

Only the writer confident in himself and free from the fashions of the moment can write like this. What may seem a throw-away line actually contains an important truth which we, if we stop and think, can recognise too.

C. E. Montague from the IWM Lives of the First World War

C. E. Montague from the IWM Lives of the First World War

Is the book relevant today? Would anyone wanting to be a writer gain anything from it? Would an established writer up their game? Or is it now only of interest to the literary historian (if indeed such a thing exists.) I wish so much to say yes and thus increase my sense of ownership over the book (again, if such a thing exists.) But it does have something to say to us all: that writing well on a subject you love and of which you know possibly more than the person next to you will always result in something both personal and, at the same time, approaching the timeless.

As far as I know there is no Bennett’s journal for 1930. Instead I have these reports from the Glasgow Herald  from the 13th of March: Shelley’s Lost Letters to Harriet by Leslie Hotson, reviewed in the paper’s Literature of Today, had much that astonished; the Mid-Scotland Ship Canal, to join the Forth with the Clyde, was recommended by the Parliamentary Bills Committee of the Glasgow Corporation as worthy of investigation by the government and from the Paris Letter column in Women’s Topics a return to femininity was noted and the comment made that “…as always happens in these matters, hats are following the lead of the dresses.”

Three cheers for great books

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 Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa. 

It has been a while since I last wrote anything here and I’d be surprised if anyone is out there still. However, it is nice to be surprised and if you are indeed there, I hope you feel that what I write comes with equal measures of gentle enjoyment and useful information.

I have not been idle (apart from writing nothing here) and continue working my way through Bennett’s columns from The Evening Standard as collected in ARNOLD BENNETT: The Evening Standard Years ‘BOOKS AND PERSONS’ 1926-1931, edited by Andrew Mylett and published in 1974. From them I had chosen Le Cahier Gris by Roger Martin Du Gard which Bennett reviewed on the 2nd of August, 1928. He wrote, amongst other things, that the Thibualt series, from which it comes, “…should emphatically be read.” I read Le Cahier Gris in French (English editions are very hard to come by) using Google Translate. This consisted in scanning the page using the app on my phone and then deciphering the English gobbledegook that it provided as a translation. Not something I would recommend and doubtless played its part in my less than enthusiastic reaction to the novel. However, had I been able to read it without the intrusion of Google Translate, I doubt if I would have warmed to a tale of, what I saw, as two silly teenage boys with a crush on each other running away from home.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-28224-0009 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Arnold Zweig (left) with Otto Nagel – By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-28224-0009 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

However, that is not the reason for returning to this blog. Having read Bennett’s comments from the 6th of December 1928 of Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa, I decided to read it and I am glad I did. There are not many novels which I have read and felt that I wanted to stand and cheer at the end and this was decidedly one of them. Not only cheer, but applaud, weep and groan in despair at times too. I am not one for sentiment in novels or having my heartstrings pulled by a novel but there was something in the quiet nobility of the story of a Russian sergeant who escapes from a German prisoner of war camp somewhere in the snowy wilderness of the Eastern Front of 1917 and takes on the identity of another soldier, which buried deep under my skin. The soldier, Grischa, simply wants to get home but in the bureaucratic world of the Eastern High Command he is now, under his new identity, regarded as a deserter and must be shot. No one, not even the General who signs the order, believes he actually should be shot and part of the mastery displayed by Zweig is to keep the reader’s hope alive in a way that seems neither naive nor unreasonable. Bennett wrote, “…it [the novel] has had the closest shave of being a masterpiece.” I would agree and add that, rather than Le Cahier Gris, this is a novel that still needs to “emphatically be read.”


I had learned my lesson and read the English translation – By © Foto H.-P.Haack (H.-P.Haack)Das Foto darf für wissenschaftliche oder populärwissenschaftliche Publikationen gebührenfrei verwendet werden, sofern der Urheber mit Foto H.-P.Haack vermerkt wird. – Antiquariat Dr. Haack Leipzig → Privatbesitz., CC BY 3.0,

Looking at Bennett’s diary, I see that on the 4th of December he was stopped four times in the street by people checking that he was indeed Arnold Bennett. He then gulped down oysters at the Reform Club with Geoffrey Russell, his solicitor, before dashing to a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass at St. Margaret’s church, sometimes known as the parish church of the House of Commons.

Bennett’s columns of late have touched more on book issues rather than books per se but I have come across a mention of Andre Maurois’ biographies of Disraeli and Shelley. As books that always seemed be somewhere in my parents’ house, I think I shall read and write about them.


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:

Lord Beaverbrook, 1918

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.

Stella Benson: a novelist who happened to travel quite a lot

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, Stella Benson and The Little World
But first:

My novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts is now available as an ebook.

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The RMS Empress of Russia was launched in Govan in Scotland on the 28th of August, 1912. Built for the Canadian Pacific Railway company it sailed the Far East route between Canada, China and Japan. Apart from mail, it carried 284 1st class passengers, 100 2nd class and up to 800 steerage passengers in a journey across the Pacific that would last approximately eight days. In an age of this:

Allure of the Seas. Source: Wikipedia

we’ve forgotten that this:

Empress of Russia. Source: Simplon Postcards.

Was the equivalent of this:

(But not this:)

The Hindenburg. Source: Wiikipedia.

Canadian Pacific sailing times. Source:

Stella Benson (1892–1933) made that journey across the Pacific, calling at Vancouver, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Manila (also the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and, I think, the Mediterranean) on a number of occasions, and travelled first class on the Empress of Russia too. That it was nothing out of the ordinary can be seen in the lack of comments to do with the nitty gritty of travel in the steamship age in her book The Little World or in her biography Portrait of Stella Benson (published in 1939, in time for World War Two, I wonder if that is why in part she disappeared so quickly from the zeitgeist). True, on one of her journeys someone died from diving into an empty swimming pool but apart from that little else seemed to happen.

Stella Benson by Wyndham Lewis. Source National Portrait Gallery.

Stella herself almost died on one of these journeys. Always suffering from ill health she had come down, as she did frequently, with an attack of pleurisy. Only the care given by, I think, a steward saved her life. As a young woman she had made these long journeys by sea because she wanted to. Always independent she had lived alone in London during the First World War, working for a charity based in Hoxton, London. Following the end of the war, it seemed only natural that she should travel, alone, to California. It was this journey she repeated with her husband, this time by car, a Ford which they named Stephanie, coast-to-coast, in conditions which seemed not to have changed much since the days of Oregon Trail.

Once married, these journeys by steamship became a necessity. Her husband was a customs official in a number of Chinese provinces and the Winters proved too much for her fragile health. She wintered in California or visited her mother in England rather than risk her health in China. And herein lay the problem. She collected her experiences as a youthful traveller in The Little World. From it emerges the image of a clever, insightful and, above all,  funny woman. She was clever and funny enough to write of the granting of a degree of political autonomy to India:

Among other Calcutta women I had permission to witness this historic ceremony. Nevertheless, though I and the other women put on our most ceremonious hats or saris and flourished grass-green passes, the authorities decreed, on second thoughts, that the occasion was too historic for the eye of woman.

Married or single, pretty or plain, intelligent or dull she was a woman. Married, she had no choice but to play second fiddle to her husband. Where he went she followed and her own literary career was fitted into his. She was not the first woman to experience this disappointment, nor will she be the last.

Of The Little World she felt little affection.

…Stella always spoke of it as trivial hack-work…

She wanted to be known for her fiction, such as Tobit Transplanted, published in 1931 and winner of the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize. But on her death the Western Daily Press summarised her life under the heading, Miss Stella Benson Dead. Novelist Who Loved To Travel. The Western Daily Press wrote of Tobit Transplanted that it was:

…a kind of modern version of a tale in the Apocrypha placed in Manchuria;

before adding that:

Travel was her hobby.

Perhaps that was Stella Benson’s undoing in the years after the Second World War. Stories written by a woman who had shot tigers, travelled alone in Mexico, survived bandit gangs in China and lived through an earthquake had a limited role to play in the new atomic world of East and West. Her colonial associations may not have worn well in this world of black and white television and Harold Macmillian’s “…most of our people have never had it so good.” Her husband was, after all, an official in the Chinese Customs Service at a time when trade in China was seen as a prerogative of the Western economies.

I was going to be a coward and use her humour as an excuse to sit her on that fence of coordinates, neither in one camp nor in the other. She deserves more than being a footnote in biographies of Virginia Woolf. A sturdy (9,6) places her in her rightful place of literary taste.

Up next time,  E.C.Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case.

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.

Robert Bridges: a dreamer, but not tongue-tied

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, the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. 

On Monday, April 22nd, 1930 Robert Bridges, the poet laureate, died at his home, Chilswell House, in Oxford. The following day The Nottingham Evening Post published an appreciation of his life. “The popular conception of him was that of a silent, tongue-tied dreamer, living a hermit’s life on a lonely Berkshire hill. He was certainly a dreamer, but he was neither tongue-tied or lonely. His manner was often forbidding; he had a horror of humbug and those who asked him silly questions fled from his caustic tongue.”

Having read a number of his poems in the collected edition of 1913, the year when he was made poet laureate, I would have been one of those erring in this view of Robert Bridges. Being prone to humbug, I would doubtless also  have fled from his caustic tongue. There are in his poems many thous, thees, thys and words such as shouldst, knoweth and confest. Love is frequently described, as are clouds, seagulls and maidens display a skill in assembling before their lady which I feel would probably be lacking in young women of today. All an easy target for our cynical age. But I will not be the first to fire.

Two poems caught my eye and that stayed my hand. First Triolet:
When first we met we did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master;
Of more than common friendliness
When first we met we did not guess
Who could foretell this sore distress,
This irretrievable disaster
When first we met?—We did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master.

Next, Indolence:
We left the city when the summer day
Had verged already on its hot decline,
And charméd Indolence in languor lay
In her gay gardens, ‘neath her towers divine:
‘Farewell,’ we said, ‘dear city of youth and dream!’
And in our boat we stepped and took the stream.

All through that idle afternoon we strayed
Upon our proposed travel well begun,
As loitering by the woodland’s dreamy shade,
Past shallow islets floating in the sun,
Or searching down the banks for rarer flowers
We lingered out the pleasurable hours.

Till when that loveliest came, which mowers home
Turns from their longest labour, as we steered
Along a straitened channel flecked with foam,
We lost our landscape wide, and slowly neared
An ancient bridge, that like a blind wall lay
Low on its buried vaults to block the way.

Then soon the narrow tunnels broader showed,
Where with its arches three it sucked the mass
Of water, that in swirl thereunder flowed,
Or stood piled at the piers waiting to pass;
And pulling for the middle span, we drew
The tender blades aboard and floated through.

But past the bridge what change we found below!
The stream, that all day long had laughed and played
Betwixt the happy shires, ran dark and slow,
And with its easy flood no murmur made:
And weeds spread on its surface, and about
The stagnant margin reared their stout heads out.

Upon the left high elms, with giant wood
Skirting the water-meadows, interwove
Their slumbrous crowns, o’ershadowing where they stood
The floor and heavy pillars of the grove:
And in the shade, through reeds and sedges dank,
A footpath led along the moated bank.

Across, all down the right, an old brick wall,
Above and o’er the channel, red did lean;
Here buttressed up, and bulging there to fall,
Tufted with grass and plants and lichen green;
And crumbling to the flood, which at its base
Slid gently nor disturbed its mirrored face.

Sheer on the wall the houses rose, their backs
All windowless, neglected and awry,
With tottering coigns, and crooked chimney stacks;
And here and there an unused door, set high
Above the fragments of its mouldering stair,
With rail and broken step led out on air.

Beyond, deserted wharfs and vacant sheds,
With empty boats and barges moored along,
And rafts half sunken, fringed with weedy shreds,
And sodden beams, once soaked to season strong.
No sight of man, nor sight of life, no stroke,
No voice the somnolence and silence broke.

Then I who rowed leant on my oar, whose drip
Fell without sparkle, and I rowed no more ;
And he that steered moved neither hand nor lip,
But turned his wondering eye from shore to shore;
And our trim boat let her swift motion die,
Between the dim reflections floating by.

Triolet because of its completeness; Indolence because I’ve always had a soft spot for narrative poetry, particularly when expressed in the first person; of T.S.Eliot’s poetry the only one I’ve been able to understand is Journey of the Magi.

Robert Bridges was made poet laureate in July of 1913 – “Dr. Bridges’ appointment will delight all who take poetry seriously and should abash jocular gentlemen in the House of Commons,” noted Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University. A year later, on the 28th of July, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and Britain declared war on Germany on August the 4th. In the 1915 Christmas edition of Blighty, the magazine of the British soldier, published a poem by Robert Bridges, the first verse being:

To the men of spirit unconquerable
Who battle to shield our homes from hell,
This tenderest greeting of love and pride
From those who at home must watch and abide.

You can almost hear him saying “Will this do?” But what else was he going to write? If part of the remit of the Poet Laureate  is to capture and express something of the national spirit, then the above may just have done that for many people. He was seventy years old when war broke out. When he was born Queen Victoria was still a young queen and he grew up in a Britain that avoided, after the Crimean War, any involvement in European conflicts. As a doctor he had witnessed death and had also acted decisively during an outbreak of smallpox in the Great Northern Hospital in 1876. But how would that help an elderly gentleman living in the outskirts of Oxford understand the new type of warfare then being fought?

He was not alone in this type of response to the war. In 1916 Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men was published and in 1917 More Songs by the Fighting Men was also published. Written by serving soldiers, these poems were described by the Western Daily Press in the January of 1918 as forming part of a springtime of “Georgian Verse” in which new poems were bursting into verse like trees in bud. To A Fallen Comrade, written by 2nd Lieutenant Murray McClymont, begins:

I heard the voice of Spring come softly pleading
Across the fresh and breathing wold today:
The Sun set free from cloudy bonds, was speeding
To greet the earth with each impassioned ray.

Another 2nd Lieutenant, Owen, Wilfred, of the Manchester Regiment would become, in his death, much more famous for his poetry than McClymont. Yet, like the poetry of Bridges, we would would err should we ignore him and his companions. Their voices may not be fashionable, but they are nonetheless the voices of men who served, and died, in the trenches.

In 1920, Horatio Bottomley, M.P. for South Hackney asked the Prime Minister, LLoyd George, if the Poet Laureate had written any of the hymns sung  in the recent unveiling of the Cenotaph, or indeed any of the large public events associated with the war. If not, then should “…he [the PM] consider the question of the appointment of a national poet whose muse is more attuned to the soul of the British nation?” Lloyd George answered by reminding Mr Bottomley that the post of Poet Laureate was for the lifetime of the incumbent, before being interrupted by a Colonel Lowther, demanding to know whether the post should be offered to Rudyard Kipling. Perhaps Robert Bridges was tired of the war by then. A lover of nature, what could he have found to inspire him in the desolation and mud of No-Man’s Land? Perhaps he was working on The Testament of Beauty, a philosophical poem in four books, which I shall not be reading.

It is an oddly reflective reader who considers the creation of literary taste, before deciding on a sad and lonely (7,8). We are back in Virginia Woolf territory. Next, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

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