Who loads the literary canons?

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, William Gerhardie’s Doom

William Gerhardie.

William Gerhardie showing how to wear a hat. from http://impedimenta.es/

It is easy to see the literary canon, however you want to define those two words (and I certainly do not want to), as something fixed, like the constellations in the night sky. Yet, like the constellations, it moves. D.H. Lawrence is one of those stars, arcing across our evening skies. This, I’m sure, appears most just. But it did not seem so certain a century ago. This is what Arnold Bennett wrote in his column of the 19th of April 1928:

It has been written by somebody young, I am told, that there is only a single English novelist living who counts: D.H. Lawrence. But there may be others. Indeed there are. William Gerhardi counts. In my opinion Gerhardi has genius. Like the accouchement of a political duchess, the appearance of his new novel, Jazz and Jasper…is an interesting event.”

Bennett would not, I am sure, be surprised to find Lawrence being taught in our schools and universities or serialised on the radio. But would he, I wonder, have been expecting to find Gerhardi there too? Having read the novel, retitled Doom and an extra ‘e’ added to Gerhardie by Gerhardi, I like to think that in a parallel universe he is indeed being taught to students and listened to on the radio. This parallel world would, by necessity, be a bit bonkers but it might also be a world that paid a little bit more attention to some of things we seem to let slip, such as doing our best not to blow it up.

It’s hard to know where to begin with the novel. Is it social satire, science fiction or plain good old-fashioned English whimsy such as Beachcomber produced during the same period in the Daily Express? In the novel we meet Frank Dickin, a writer; Lord Ottercove, an immensely powerful press baron who wants turn Frank into a bestselling writer; Eva, with whom, if memory serves me right, Frank is in love and Lord de Jones, who claims he can solve the world hunger by blocking up every volcano in the world (also in love with Eva.) There is a car that flies and the safest place to be in the world turns out to be a hotel in the Austrian Tyrol. The novel may even be an allegory for the Christian Creation Story.

Whatever it is (and I shall certainly be rereading it, to try and find out) my estimation of Bennett, already high, has, if anything, risen further. Here is a man who made his money writing bestsellers and being friends with his very own press baron Lord Beaverbrook and whose book columns consistently champion the young, the new and odd. He had free rein from Beaverbrook but he never exploited it. His columns were fresh, lively and written in a clear, almost chatty, style. I like to think of people opening the paper and wondering “What has he written about this week?”

On the 13th of April, Bennett thought about his film Piccadilly, bought a watch for Dorothy and straight home to celebrate the second birthday of his daughter Virginia.


From Ancient Greece to the man on the Clapham omnibus

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, Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry. 

Can you imagine a contemporary newspaper, whose daily readership is measured in millions, publishing as its weekly book review a piece on the importance of classical traditions in the writing of poetry? Neither can I. That is what The Evening Standard did on the 19th of January 1928 when it published Arnold Bennett’s review of Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry. In the review, Bennett bemoans his own lack of Greek and his tendency to doze off while watching stage productions of Greek plays. However, this does not stop him declaring emphatically:

Here is a book I can recommend.


What book was it that he was recommending? Gilbert Murray, Professor of Greek at Oxford University, had given the first lectures on poetry as the incumbent of the newly established Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard University in the autumn of 1926. These were then republished by the Oxford University Press. Murray’s thesis was that all poetry could be firmly put into the Greek tradition of mimesis, a combination of mimicry and immersion that, like the Greek dancers of the molpe, allowed the poem to become that which it is describing. “The world is born. Homer sings” as Victor Hugo wrote and Murray quotes more than once, each time pointing out Hugo’s error: Homer too had models that he drew from, and these models too had their own models.

What did the  readers (as much as 2 million daily) of The Evening Standard make of it all? Any answer to that question will, I suppose, depend on your opinion of Arnold Bennett, literary taste in 1920s Britain and who could afford a book costing five shillings (as much as £40 if you link it to relative wages in 1928)? My own feeling is that readers of The Evening Standard did not simply turn the page or skim through the review. Gilbert Murray is not well known today, as this Google Book Ngram make only too clear:

The numbers don't lie.

It was a different story back in the 1920s and 30s. Gilbert Murray was not simply a Greek scholar he was also a bit of personality. His work on behalf of the League of Nations, his speeches in favour of disarmament and free trade were reported at length in the Burnley News, the Hull Daily Mail and the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. He was not solely of interest to the metropolitan press. Bennett wrote:

…the Professor has been and is a great civilising influence on the present age. I immensely admire his taste, his moral bases and his achievement. And he emphatically is not narrow-minded. His sympathetic vision can and does embrace many varied manifestations of life, including the modern; he constantly shows this by his allusions and his comparisons.

It is this emphasis on the personal qualities of Gilbert Murray that would, I think, catch the eye of the reader on the London omnibus or underground.

Gilbert Murray National Library of Australia

What did I make of it? I found the chapters on Milton and Shakespeare a challenge; almost overwhelmed by the talk of dochmiacs and dactyl-spondees in the chapter on Metre and sceptical of his links between Hamlet and Orestes. All, I should point out, based on the same knowledge of Greek as had Bennett. Am I glad I read it? Yes I am. His style is clear and limpid. His passion for his subject shines through. He is academic without being exclusive.

On the 24th of January, Bennett saw Noel Coward in comedy The Second Man and declared him “admirable.”


Ward is not the opposite of Wayward.

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, St. John Ervine’s novel The Wayward Man. 

The Wayward Man

In the Evening Standard of the 22nd of December 1927, Bennett wrote of St. John Ervine’s novel The Wayward Man

I have heard that The Wayward Man is having a good sale. It ought to have a very good sale for a very long time. This book is a book….His spell is deliberate but powerful and sure.

Halfway through my Penguin edition of 1936, I found myself thinking “Bennett has sold me a dud.” Even Bennett, like honest Homer, nods. I thought of leaving it unread but I am glad I did not. True, there are moments in the life of its central character, the Ulster-born and prodigal son Robert Dunwoody, when trenchant social comment from the 1920s, a visit to a San Francisco brothel and a stint in a Mid-Western jail, seem either mawkish or racially insensitive. Ervine’s attempts to capture the intonations of all those from outwith his own Ulster folk (he was born in Belfast in 1883) grated. But I am glad I did not. I would have missed moments of lyricism and pointed but poignant judgements on life and its viscitudes. For example, Robert, having run off to sea instead of becoming the Presbyterian minister his mother wanted, looks up at the stars from the forecastle-head of his ship:

The whole constellation of heaven seemed to be laid bare before him…and Robert, for the first time in his life, felt that earth and sea and sky and stars and men were bound together. The Great Bear and the Little Bear and the Pleiades and the Heavenly Twins, the Hyades with Aldebarran, the Bull’s Eye, fiercely shining in the middle of them, and Orion and Mars and Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest in heaven, and the Great Nebula, star dust carelessly spilt, as if God the sower had suddenly emptied his sackful of stars and emptied them across the sky.

Or, as in this simple exchange between Robert and his mother at the end of the novel:

He pressed her hand in his. “I wish I could be the son you want me to be, but I can’t!”

“I know,” she said, “so I’ll content myself with the son you are…”

NPG x94121; St John Greer Ervine by Walter Benington, for  Elliott & Fry

Saint John Ervine (Belfast Telegraph)

However, it was not for Robert’s sake that I finished the novel. As a character he does not change from childhood: wayward as a boy, he is equally wayward as a man. No, it is Brenda, who loved Robert as a wee girl and marries him as a woman, who captured my attention.  She is obsessed with success and determined to live, as she puts it, as “nice people” do. She takes on Mrs. Dunwoody’s hardware stores and turns them into a successful chain throughout Ulster. She fights her corner like a demon and, scared of no one, destroys more than one male competitor. Robert shares in her success and shares her bed. But sex disgusts her and a child is out of the question. It is this, more than the dull bourgeois existence Robert struggles to embrace after his seafaring years, that leads to his betrayal of Brenda. Ervine was, and is, remembered as a successful playwright, and these scenes crackle with the charged emotions that can only come from the naked immediacy of theatre.

On the 4th of December, Bennett dined well at the Savoy with, among others, Noel Coward, Humbert Wolf, Ethel Mannin, Osbert Sitwell and Rebecca West. To have listened in to that lot…

Tales from the South Seas

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.

In The Evening Standard of the 23rd of June 1927, Bennett’s review of Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot was published. He described it as:

A fantastical, moral, philosophical tale of the South Seas. Original and rightly malicious humour. A sharp, surprising wit. A coherent beginning, and a coherent end. Some authentic pathos, but a lack of power. It is a book of which every page has definite quality, but which considered as a whole, is unsatisfying.

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 17.32.36

Sylvia Townsend Warner, from the National Portrait Gallery

As always with Bennett, I would both agree and disagree. There is something in what he says about the beginning and the end; in the middle I felt as if I had to make an extra effort to turn the page. But it was worth it, that is if you define enjoying a book by feeling your eyes moisten and chin quiver while reading the final pages. Here is where I feel Bennett missed an opportunity. In this tale of an English missionary to a fictional South Sea island who realises that the one convert he succeeds in making is actually having him on, Warner never loses her ability or desire to to describe people at both their most ridiculous and most wonderfully human. Hence, the moist eyes. We are noble in our self-delusion and even more noble in our recognition of it.

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 17.31.13

First page of Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, from http://www.coxandbudge.co.uk/

On the 23rd of June, Bennett noted in his journal that T.S.Eliot came to tea and arrived very late, despite assuring Bennett that he would not. They talked about books and theatres. Later that evening, he dined at the Other Club (a political dining club set up in part by Winston Churchill) and chatted with Maynard Keynes: “very agreeable and rather brilliant.”

Like Bennett, I had read Warner’s first novel, Lolly Willowes before reading Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. Bennett had read the praise for it before he read the novel and was disappointed. I had not read the praise and I was not disappointed, although I still felt that extra effort to turn the middle pages. This is neither here nor there. But she was a successful writer (Lolly Willowes was the first Book of the Month choice in the U.S.A.) and like many successful writers from that period faded somewhat from view. She was not forgotten but she was neglected. She seemed to have no axe to grind (although her her depiction of Lolly Willowes would justifiably give her the label of feminist) and I sometimes wonder if it is the absence of axe-grinding that determines whether an author survives the passing of the years.


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 britannica.com

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 wikipedia.org


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.

Middlebrow goes to war

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. However, in this post  there are some interesting maps, Jane Austen, Bath and Elizabeth Bowen’s 1942 literary guide  English Novelists.

Let's not make a fuss.

By the time war broke out in September 1939, Elizabeth Bowen (1899 – 1973) had published six novels. Of The Death of the Heart, the February 1939 issue of the Forum wrote:

. ..Elizabeth Bowen, s] really articulating in artistic form the problems of our time. They are not the superficial problems; they are chiefly the spiritual ones, and in our times these are the most challenging that have faced humanity in generations.

I doubt if such praise was given to one of her lesser known works, English Novelists published in the England in Pictures series, first issued in 1942. However, it would also be foolish to pass over it in silence. Forty eight pages long, it explained the evolution of the English novel from John Lyly to Virginia Woolf. Published  by Collins, it was intended to not just to educate but also to raise morale. Of the classic English novel she wrote:

We lose much if we ignore, or honour in name only, so living a part of the English heritage. And now, when the English spirit stands at its full height, to do so would be a double loss.

They are all there: Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, Fielding, Burney, Austen, Scott, Dickens, Thackerary, the Brontës, Gaskell, Eliot, Hardy, James and Kipling. Our man Bennett is there too, the importance of his time spent in France underlined:

The French aesthetic ideal– detachment –was always uppermost in his mind: to this we owe his objective view of England–as valuable in an Englishman as it is rare.

The Nazi threat would not be defeated by the values found in the works of a Rex Warner or a Wyndham Lewis. Rather it was those writers who could be identified as coming from and adding to a shared sense of Englishness that would lead the counterattack, including that reprobate Samuel Butler of Erewhon fame.

Of Jane Austen she wrote that she:

…seems to belong to no century.

Her scenes were small–drawing rooms and lawns– but the truths she applied to them were large.

she dispels…the fallacy that life with the lid off–in thieves’ kitchens, prisons, taverns and brothels–is necessarily more interesting than life with the lid on.

She is, in fact:

…the most nearly flawless of English novelists. She could not have been other than English–yet she stands a little apart from the other writers we have in an artistry that no sentiment blurred, no theory narrowed and no rancour or prejudice side-tracked.

Elizabeth Bowen’s admiration of Austen was long standing. In the August 15th issue of the Saturday Review of Literature in an article entitled Jane Austen: Artist on Ivory, she had written:

Jane Austen…brought the English novel to a point nearer perfection than it has reached since.

Elizabeth BowenSource: Wikipedia

Elizabeth Bowen
Source: Wikipedia

On the 8th of March, 1942, the Battle of Britain a distant memory and the fall of Singapore a very recent one, the BBC broadcast Elizabeth Bowen’s play New Judgement: Elizabeth Bowen on Jane Austen. In it a narrator attempts to tell the story of Jane Austen’s life only to be interrupted by her sister Cassandra, her niece Fanny, Darcy, Elizabeth, Mr. Knightly and Emma. These interruptions quickly enter the narrative, revealing that despite her protestations, Cassandra never fully knew her sister, while Fanny lacked the maturity of character to do so, and, as Elizabeth Bowen was to repeat in her description of Jane in English Novelists, she is to be found in the now. The play is light in touch, almost whimsical, and strikes just the right tone for a nation fighting for its life. Well, if that nation is England.

By the spring of 1942, the London Blitz was over, and another two years would pass before the V1s and V2s would force people back into the shelters. But travelling to Broadcasting House on the night of the broadcast, the actors, the director, the sounds effect people would have walked along bomb damaged streets, as this screen shot from the Bomb Sight website shows (each red circle is a German bomb; BBC Broadcasting House, centre and left):

Aggregate Bomb Damage December 1940 - June 1941

Aggregate Bomb Damage December 1940 – June 1941

But to see the middlebrow in the front line we have to leave London and head for the provinces. In The Western Morning News of April 27th, 1942, Berlin Radio was quoted as saying “As a further reprisal raid for British air attacks on the residential quarters of German cities, strong bomber formations last night attacked the town of Bath, with destructive results….” The choice of Bath as a target was not one of happenstance. On April 29th, The Western Morning News carried a report, quoted from Reuters in Berne, that the German Press had stated that the raid had been directed at “…works of art, monuments and dwelling quarters.” The raid was one of series known as the Baedeker Raids. In the spring of 1942 German bombers attacked Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury in a series of retaliatory raids following the RAF bombing raids on Lübeck. All were unimportant but picturesque cities, supposedly picked from the Baedeker Guide to Britain. The 1905 English Baedeker edition wrote of Bath that:

Among the innumerable visitors of eminence in the 18th and early 19th cent. may be mentioned Chatham, Pitt, Canning and Burke, Nelson, Wolfe, and Sir Sidney Smith, Gainsborough and Lawrence, Smollett, Fielding, Sheridan, Miss Burney, Goldsmith, Southey, Landor, Miss Austen, Wordsworth, Cowper, Scott and Moore. Memorial tablets mark the houses occupied by many of these. Perhaps no other English town of the size has oftener been the theme of literary allusion…

Works of art, monuments, dwelling quarters – Bath ticked all the boxes, you might say.

Damage was widespread and casualties high, more than 400 killed over the two nights.

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project. http://www.thejwarrens.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/bathblitz/index.html

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

Each star on the map marks the impact of German bombs. Given the extent of the damage and the numbers of dead, wounded and homeless, it’s not surprising that The Western Morning News used the bylines BATH AGAIN SINGLED OUT BY HUNS and HUN “NO MERCY” RAIDS. The men in the bombers were not even Germans. They were Huns and Huns, as history shows, destroy civilisations. Of interest to us is Green Park, just to the south of the railway station. It was here in 1804 and 1805 that 3 Green Park Buildings was home to Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. After the raids it looked like this:

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

What is worse, to target cities in an attempt to erase a culture, a love of books, a common history of Englishness; or target cities, using a thousand bombers because statistically the chance of inflicting mass civilian casualties is that much higher? Naturally, I have no answer to that moral conundrum, except to say the Germans started it.

What is clear, however, is the scale of the German error in their attacks on Bath. Alongside the stories of lucky escapes (Mrs. O. Cockram, an elderly lady, tunneled out from a buried room, letting others escape), the resolve of the survivors was praised. The Women’s Volunteer Service provided bedding, accommodation, comfort and, of course, tea. One family, almost killed by rubble falling on their Morrison shelter, arrived at a W.V.S. centre, blackened from head to foot. They refused offers of a wash and fresh clothes. “”All we want is a cup of tea,” said the mother briskly.” Briskly, mind you. The Nazis may have had ideology on their side. England had the middlebrow desire for a good cup of tea.

Calculus: how fast is that reader moving and where to?

I’m not sure where I came across Arnold Bennett’s Literary Taste and How to Form It. I want it to be from reading Walter Allen’s The English Novel. Both books look at literature and everyone associated with them – their authors and the authors of the works they examine – are dead. Both pluses as far as I’m concerned. I never came across references to them in my dad’s copies of The London Review of Books, or in the articles listed in the website aldaily or in the free issues of The Literary Review I download onto my iPhone. In other words, they weren’t being discussed by critics and reviewers; a result, I imagine, of simply being forgotten. On the other hand if I had read more of the articles in the London Review of Books, and not just the ones on history, subscribed to some of the magazines and journals listed in aldaily and paid for my copy of The Literary Review I might have found myself swamped by references to both men. But I doubt it.

I  found it in Wikipedia, of course. Although I can’t link it directly with Walter Allen’s book there must have been something in Allen’s comments, such as “Bennett’s thesis, that young girls grow into fat old women may be a limited truth, but it is worked out with the fullest intensity,” that made me want to find out more about him. There in the bibliography of the Wikipedia page was Literary Taste and How to Form It. Did I follow the link to find out more? I don’t know but I did decide very quickly I was going to read it and see if I could use its reading lists to form my own  literary taste. That it had been originally published in 1909, only referred to books written in English and would be useless in helping me make sense of contemporary literature made that decision easier. Oh, and everybody associated with it was dead.

I haven’t seen the film Supersize Me but I knew that my work would take what I assumed to be its premise, format and just about anything else from it to give me the structure I needed. I even thought about videoing my efforts to form a literary taste and posting them on YouTube. It would be the antidote to reality TV. It would also be very dull. But although I’m writing my experiences the end will be the same as a film which I have not seen. I would reflect on the process and judge the end result by looking back at where I had started. It would be great if I could have a literary expert in the role of my medical adviser to make sure I did no lasting damage to my aesthetic values but maybe that’s hoping for too much. Or possibly going too far with what is essentially a throwaway metaphor.

But how do you check for literary taste? You can watch a man getting fat. You can check his blood for cholesterol. But where’s the tipping point that let’s you say “Now I’ve got literary taste”? How would you recognize it and what would you do if someone said “You haven’t got literary taste. You’ve just read a lot of books. All of them by dead people.”? After all, it’s much easier for everyone to agree that someone is fat because they’ve eaten a load of hamburgers than to agree when someone knows a lot about literature. Unless their name begins with Professor and they work in a university.

A thermometer graphic seemed as good a place to start. The kind that is found outside churches raising money to repair the roof. As the mercury rose I’d know my taste was getting more developed. But it was my brother Ken who came up with the idea of plotting coordinates on a chart. “You could use calculus to work out the direction of  your literary taste,” he said. “Could I make one of the axis Virginia Woolf and the other E.M.Forster because if Virginia Woolf is the y-axis and E.M. Forster is the x-axis, I know I’d like my literary taste to develop more along the x-axis?” I asked. Ken said that would be okay. “And negative coordinates?” I asked. “James Joyce would be the negative of Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway would be the negative of E.M. Forster.” Ken said that would be okay too. Hmm, I thought, a coordinate on the E.M.Forster and James Joyce axes would be a good thing. (The graph at the moment only works in the Joyce/Woolf axes. But I will work on making it shows Hemingway/Forster axes too).

So far I’ve read William Hazlitt’s essay On Poetry in General and Isaiah Chapter 40 – “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” As Slovakia flexes its political muscles and Wales goes into the Rugby World Cup semi-final I have plotted the first coordinates:  E.M.Forster 1,Virginia Woolf 2.

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