Chance meeting? Not on your statistical nelly.

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, Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr

Lithograph of Wyndham Lewis by the artist. Source: the National Gallery

Lithograph of Wyndham Lewis by the artist. Source: the National Gallery

The Annuaire Statistique is a triumph of counting, if by “triumph” you mean counting on a massive scale, and I certainly do. The website explains its role as:

L’Annuaire statistique de la France est une collection qui regroupe dans un seul volume les statistiques de différentes branches économiques et sociales puis plus tard, industrielles. Cette collection s’étend de 1878 à nos jours et elle est toujours vivante.

Which when put through Google Translate comes out as:

Statistical Yearbook of France is a collection that brings together in one volume statistics of various economic and social sectors and later, industrial. This collection spans from 1878 to the present day and is still alive.

In it you can discover that whereas in 1902 the High Pyrenees had 103 steam locomotives, the Seine Département had  a mighty 486, representing an impressive 5,710 horsepower.

There is an international aspect to the data as well. In 1901 Russia exported  raw materials to the worth of  149,682,000 francs to France and a measly 3,446,000 francs of manufactured goods; France, on the other hand, exported to Russia manufactured goods to the value of 9,989,000 francs. There is enough data to keep a graph nerd happy for a lifetime.

I have made one graph: German and British nationals resident in France, 1896-1921.

German and British nationals resident in France.

German and British nationals resident in France.

Even in 1921, three years after their last attempt to capture it in their spring offensive, there were still more Germans than British resident in Paris (there are no statistics for 1914-1918 but I imagine there were guy few Germans hingin aboot Paris). What were they all doing there? Most had come to work: they cleaned, they served meals, they cooked, some had their own businesses. Looked at in terms of gender, it is German women who formed the largest group, working, like their British counterparts, in the service industries and earning a lot less than the men. Another group, probably smaller and largely confined to German and British intellectuals, settled in Paris, attracted by its “otherness.” In the case of the German artists and intellectuals, they felt in equal parts repelled by the rapid growth and urbanisation of Berlin and attracted to the combination of modernity and tradition represented by Paris. In 1900 much of Paris still  lay within the city walls that had resisted the German siege of 1870; the scattered settlements outside the walls still had the appearance of small villages. But by 1900 you could also use the recently opened Paris metro. You could also, if you were British or German, and not working 12 hours a day scrubbing floors, have a lot more sex than in your own country. 

Wyndham Lewis and his literary creation Frederick Tarr, the hero of the novel, both fall into this last category. Tarr, like Lewis, is a painter in Paris who has to decide between the bourgeois Bertha Lunken and the intellectual, sexual and meat-obsessed Anastasya. Into this wanders the mad German artist Otto Kreisler who, unable to have sex, becomes even more mad. On any level it is an odd novel, given the content and the date of publication (begun before the First World War, Lewis revised it considerably during it and it was finally published in 1918). If you wish you may, after reading it, wish to draw the cultural threads together of German nationalism, Nietzschean philosophy and indeed, a prescient prediction of the rise of nazism. Or you may wish to cut those same threads, and argue that statistically Lewis was bound to meet Ida Vendel in Paris in 1906 just as Tarr was to meet Bertha in the novel, the former being the inspiration for the latter. And why not?

Be that as it may, it is stuffed to the free-loving gunnels with literary taste. A life-affirming (5,3) is therefore plotted.

How's them apples?

Next time, I shall follow the example of Mr.Gradgrind and read only “Fact, fact, fact.”

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.

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


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.

It’s a graph-based Bennett-themed frenzy!

If you’re like me (and I hope to God you’re not) then there’s nothing you like better than looking at data presented in the form of graphs. There is the insightful. For example, what better way to illuminate the impact and immensity of the Great Depression in the US than the drop in job adverts:

Or there is the whimsical, as in French steam power of the twentieth century:

Although it would be easy to dismiss all this as ironic, the leitmotif of this blog, I am quite serious. This graph makes me smile, in a whimsical way.

Then there is the nitty-gritty, that shale of economic data which has to be blasted with high pressure analysis to release its precious gassy conclusions. Or, to simplify the process, make it up as you go along, something which has always paid dividends for me. For example there is this:

Or, if the fancy takes you there is this:

Not forgetting:


All, I hope, to be self-explanatory when it comes to Arnold Bennett, life and works. But to summarise: our man Bennett liked money. He liked making it and spending it, making him suspect in the eyes of those for whom making money, having money and spending money had historically not been a problem. Wyndham Lewis, in a letter to Time and Tide, wrote that Bennett had

capitulated so thoroughly to those conditions of his new Big Business employment, that he would…praise any book put under his nose.

Worse, and this perhaps his gravest financial offence, was his lack of shame when it came to money, the making of and the spending of. His clothes were colourful, his homes comfortable, his taste in art modern, his stays in the best hotels long and he had an omellete named after him. The Woolf Banana Fritter anyone? Or a slice of Eliot Pecan Pie? I thought not.

His childhood poverty has been put forward as an explanation for this delight in wealth and comfort. Although as a son of solicitor I’m not sure if poverty is the apt word. By hard work his father, Enoch Bennett, had qualified as a solicitor in the 1870s. Although not a generous man towards Arnold, he did dismiss the spectre of hunger, the poor house and early death from the family’s front door. Bennett, however, liked to note in his journals his income for each year, and the number of words written. In 1912 he recorded an income of £16,000 (worth £1,240,000 in purchasing power in 2012). Over the weekend of March 5th, 1918 he earned  £300 (worth  £11,400 in 2012), through, as he wrote, “hard work.”

And the graphs? Our man was lucky enough to be wealthy at a time of increasing access to consumer goods, apart from the war years when industrial production naturally had to be switched from gramophones to heavy artillery shells and machine guns; and apart from the leap in inflation following peace in 1918, he benefited from a decade of falling prices. Wages fell also and unemployment in the last years of his life rose, but neither of these would have affected our man, unless he had to employ a servant or two: there was a large pool to draw from and wages would not make a dent in his income. But towards the end of his life economic worries did affect his life. Not because of the international economic depression. It was all because of this:

Taken from “Olympic Britain. Social and economic change since the 1908 and 1948 London Games.” Published by the House of Commons Library.

His marriage to Marguerite Soulié in 1907 ended in separation in 1921. Apart from declaring himself or Marguerite an adulterer, admitting to acts of cruelty or abandoning Marguerite there was little he could do given her refusal to consider a divorce. He supported her financially and also Dorothy Cheston with whom he had fallen in love and who, despite changing her name by deed poll to Bennett and bearing him a daughter, would, legally, have been considered his mistress. With two households to support, he found himself in the unaccustomed position of being financially hard-pressed. When he died in 1931 he left £36,000, £7,000 in securities, £4,225 in royalties and £7,500 in manuscripts. That £36,000 in cash, reduced to £31,000 after willing £5,000 to Marguerite, would have been equal in purchasing power to £1,910,000 in 2012. If you remember his earnings for 1911 had amounted to the equivalent of £1,240,000. That was for one year’s work. His will was the testament of a lifetime’s work. There is a moral in all this. Unfortunately, as it is not available in the form of a graph, I am at a loss to say what it is.

Today, a surfeit of graphs and economic data. We shall return nostalgically to a simpler form when I write of Stella Benson’s The Little World.

%d bloggers like this: