On the need of reading reviews carefully

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, The Honeywood File by H.B. Creswell. 

In his column of the 5th of December 1929, Bennett wrote of The Honeywood File (the purported correspondence between an architect and his client, builders, suppliers and town planners written during the construction of a country-house) “I repeat that as literature it is not great.” How I wish I had paid attention to that sentence before reading the book. Instead I had read this quote selected by Bennett,

Also I am afraid it will be impossible to enter the house by the front-door except, of course, by going up the front-stairs and down the back, which cannot be the intention….Moreover, the front-stairs could be used to reach the bedrooms only by going out by the back-door or by one of the windows, and in at the front door. I mention these matters in order to make clear why it is impossible for me to adopt your plan….)

These are the funniest sentences in what I had assumed was going to be an amusing account of the misunderstandings arising from the building of a house. In fact, the book is everything you need to know when building a house in late 1920s England rather than the knockabout slapstick I had thought it was going to be. I’m sure the author meant the reader to smile and even chuckle. I’m sure Bennett smiled as he read it and may even have chuckled as did its many readers. I say “many” as a second volume was published, The Honeywood Settlement. It was even made into a series on BBC radio in 1961 and 1982. I did not smile and chuckle and I will share the blame in equal parts between myself and Arnold Bennett.  Although he included this disclaimer, writing that the book was “…full of useful information, lightly conveyed, for everybody concerned with domestic architecture” he did write near the start of his review “…it is often very funny.” Memo to self: read the whole review before deciding to buy a book.

In the weeks up to the 5th of December, Bennett attended a performance of Journey’s End for holders of the V.C., examined the case of young woman charged with prostitution, discussed the reading habits of Yorkshire woollen-manufacturers and turned down the request for a loan of £150 to a complete stranger who, as he found out later, made a habit of such requests.

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Frank Swinnerton: four novels

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, four novels by Frank Swinnerton. 

During my absence from this blog I continued to to read as often, if not as widely, as possible. I feel most comfortable in the company of those writers who have already made that Stygian crossing and hopefully are resting in the Elysian Fields. One of these writers I wanted to get to know better was Frank Swinnerton (1884-1982), a successful author and close friend of Arnold Bennett.

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I chose four of his novels: Nocturne (1917), A Woman in Sunshine (1944), Death of a Highbrow (1961) and Rosalind Passes (1973.) The first I chose because it is regarded as his most famous and caught the interest of other established writers such as H. G. Wells and Bennett himself; Death of a Highbrow because I had seen it mentioned elsewhere on the Internet and the remaining two because they came in the mid-point and at end of his long career as a writer. Why did I choose him? From simple curiosity given his links to Bennett; having enjoyed a volume of his biography Figures in the Foreground, it seemed natural to want to read something of his fiction and, I have to admit, from hoping I might “rediscover” a writer worthy of republication by, for example, Persephone Books or the Handheld Press.

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Was any of the above worth it? It depends on which reason I chose to read them. If from curiosity then I have filled in a gap in my knowledge of popular British literature. Like Bennett, his scale is human and the fragile nature of our egos that marks so much of our lives. Mistakes are made; young lives are ended too soon; affairs are undertaken; values are held onto; other roads less-less travelled are chosen and in the end little of it makes any great impact. There is no attempt to explore new literary forms or marshal literature to any ideology.

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If I look honestly at my half-formed but no less real desire to “rediscover” a popular writer from the twentieth-century then I’m afraid the results are not so clear. There has been a great deal written about Nocturne. All that I can add is that it is a novel with equal parts of charm and insight and has two strong female voices. I’m sure it will continue to be reprinted at intervals in the future.

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Death of a Highbrow deserves more attention as an example of post-war fiction which looks at the personal impact of a choice to work in  highbrow literature based on the respectability which it will afford. It is the most “modern” of the novels I chose, reminding me at times of Herman Broch’s The Death of  Virgil, in its theme, shifting perspectives and passages that at times resemble streams of consciousness. Is it worthy of a reprint with a concise introduction to place it in its literary, social and cultural context? I simply do not know.

Frank Arthur Swinnerton - source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43576934

Frank Arthur Swinnerton – Source Wikipedia.

As for the other two, the characters speak their lines convincingly, reminding us that they are our reflections and leave a trace of memory after they have gone. Swinnerton lived by his writing, publishing a new book every year or so and can be forgiven for nodding at times. There may be others which I did not read and which deserve our praise.

Am I disappointed? Slightly, but more in myself than in anything I read. Like any writer, Frank Swinnerton deserved, as his friend Arnold Bennet wrote in one of his Books and Persons columns in The Evening Standard, to be read while I examined not only the book but also my reactions to it. I did not read them with an open mind and therefore possibly missed that chance to be simply entertained which is no mean end for any novel.

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5350429

Arnold Zweig (left) with Otto Nagel – By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-28224-0009 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5350429

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.”

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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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4053310

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.

 

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.

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Edgar Wallace smoking downwards. From edgarwallace.org

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. 

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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.”

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.

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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…

Frank Swinnerton: Gentleman

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, the writer Frank Swinnerton’s book of essays The Tokefield Papers

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Frank Swinnerton, his wife Mary and their daughter Olivia. 1937. © National Portrait Gallery.

Is anything more pleasurable than reading a book of essays by a writer long dead, on topics that have little bearing on contemporary life and which you cannot discuss because no one you know has read them? Of course there is. Pleasures abound in every corner of our lives. Like heretics, infidels and schismatics, the world is full of them. And yet, for that very reason a book such as Frank Swinnerton’s Tokefield Papers delights and charms me even more. It makes no demands, speaks in a quiet and cultured voice and expects nothing from us. Arnold Bennett, in his book column of December the 8th 1927, wrote of the book of collected essays:

Swinnerton has an extraordinary natural gift of elegance. None can handle a sentence with more skill. Devilishly adroit, he can get himself out of any compositional scrape without re-casting his phrase. Sometimes I wish he were less dextrous. But his attitude is maintained throughout. He is a realist concerning human nature, harsh. slightly cruel, yet kindly and always urbane. He amounts to a tonic, and should be taken at least twice a year. His urbanity and his moderation of statement are formidable.

The contents betray Swinnerton’s self-confessed fascination with his fellow humans: Why Gardeners are Gloomy, The Duty of Being Agreeable, On Thinking Well of Oneself, On Feeling Inferior, Respectability. For a man who eschewed all things Freudian, he shows himself to have had a a profound insight into human behaviour and a sense of empathy that does not blind him to the dangers posed by the emotionally-demanding, the rude, the arrogant who seek to dominate instead of sharing time and space in delightful gossip. There is something  of the Roman stoic philosopher in Swinnerton and I would place him unhesitatingly in that line of Republican and Imperial writer-philosophers such as Seneca and Cato. Somewhere in the Shades, I like to think of them sharing a cup of wine.

I wondered about the title of the book, The Tokefield Papers. A little internet research led me to the Surrey village of Cranleigh. It was there that Swinnerton bought a sixteenth-century cottage in 1924 and continued to write and entertain visitors with a cup of tea and a blether until his death at 92 in 1982.

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Old Tokefield, 1955 -1966. © The Estate of Marguerite Howarth.

On December 4th, Bennett visited the Garrick Club, listened to Bach’s B minor Mass at St. Margaret’s and ate oysters at the Reform Club. He felt uplifted by the music but criticised the women’s dress for its dowdiness.

 

It’s the little things that count

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.

When I was a student at university in the 1980s there were no courses on middlebrow literature, the term given to popular novels published in English between 1900 and 1950. I studied history so I can’t say for certain how the English literature courses were structured but I shared digs with a student who was studying Beowulf and Old English. I imagine the degree would then have taken him through Chaucer, Milton, Austen, Hardy and ending at Woolf. Times have changed. The Middlebrow Network website lists 36 academics as either core members or as sitting on the advisory board. Kate Macdonald, writing in a post called Why studying middlebrow matters commented on the reasons for this change in literary studies:

The study of English literature has been enlarging its boundaries radically in the past thirty years. My private theory is that the increase in the numbers of people studying at university level in Britain since the 1990s means that we need more and new research subjects for the ever-rolling stream of PhD students. The academy’s capacity for writing dissertations on Shakespeare, Woolf and Hughes was becoming exhausted under traditional terms of scrutiny. Something happened to allow literary criticism to widen its borders. Now, we study not just what people read, but how people read, why they read, what they thought about what they read, and the marginalia printed all around the important things that people read, which they also read, and were changed by, without noticing. The traditional authors and works are still studied, but the overflow is accommodated most creatively through middlebrow studies.

Middlebrow studies is now a Thing. A Good Thing, in my opinion. From reading Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, Borges and Calvino in my twenties, I have returned to the reading tastes of my childhood when I read Biggles novels, the novels of Roman Britain written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, children’s classics such as Stig of the Dump and more modern children’s novels such as A Dog So Small: that is to say, popular fiction. One Thing has replaced another Thing, because this Thing is quite clearly not that Thing.

But not quite. I began reading Arnold Bennett’s Evening Standard reviews with the belief that I would quickly find myself reading the popular novels of the 1920s: those “shockers” that Buchan claimed he wrote. What have I read so far? A tragedy set in an upper class rural family emotionally-at-sea; a tragedy set in eighteenth century Germany that exposed the brutal consequences of anti-semitism and a Russian folktale. And now, I am reading Sacheverell Sitwell’s The Cyder Feast, a collection of self-published poems that link us with the rural world described lovingly in the Georgics of Virgil.

Osbert and Edith Sitwell

From left to right  Sir Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969), Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988). — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Of the poet, Bennett wrote in his review of the 16th of June, 1927:

I have for years maintained that Sacheverell Sitwell is one of the most original poets of his generation…His mind is not only original but lovely. He never writes anything of which you could positively assert that it was not distinguished. He experiences sensations, and he gets effects, which, so far as my knowledge goes, nobody ever experienced or got before. I derive a most exciting pleasure from his work.

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Frontspiece of The Cyder Feast

Compare Bennett’s review with the comments made by Emanuel Eisenberg in The Bookman in the November of that year. Speaking of the three Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – he wrote:

They are all insufferable poets — insufferable minor poets, I mean, and minor poetry rarely becomes unbearable to me, since I can usually find a transient pleasure in efficiency of manufacture.

Or this from Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review in the June of 1928.

Apart from a dissonance or two, an inverted image, a strained and dislocated adjective, these horticultural verses might have been written in the eighteenth century as well as (and possibly better than) the twentieth.

And that from someone who quite liked the book.

Bennett’s talent, as far as I can make it out from these reviews, is that he looked at Everything, rather than that Thing or this Thing. Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Sitwell (Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell), Kafka were given the same once-over he would give to Forster, Chesterton, Warner or Bates. If he did not understand what he had had read he did not hold it against the author. Eisenberg and Untermeyer’s beef was that The Cyder Feast was not modern enough. Bennett would not have dwelt on the issue. His concern was promoting the best in literature to as wide an audience as possible, be it traditional or modernist.

What did I make of The Cyder Feast. In answer I will quote this from Bennett’s review:

…when somebody comes along and says that he cannot understand Sacheverell Sitwell, I sympathise with that somebody. There is a certain amount of Sacheverell Sitwell that I do not understand, or only half understand.

I did well with the first twenty five poems, being the most Virgilian in nature, linking nature with architecture and history. After these poems, the words drifted delightfully into my mind and then delightfully out again.

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Caricature of Arnold Bennett by Oliver Herford, found on The Project Gutenberg, clearly alluding to his prodigious output.

On the 15th of June, we get a glimpse in his journal of the working day of a bestselling British novelist of the 1920s: gets up early; breakfasts on fruit; observes his street from the balcony; writes 800 words by 12.15; lunches at the Reform Club; returns by bus; continues writing; theatre in the evening.

 

 

 

The County of Roxburgh: tastemaker

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, the County of Roxburgh.

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Roxburgh, showing rail routes – source: happyhaggis.co.uk

Reading Bennett’s reviews from the Evening Standard (I’m using the collected edition, edited by Andrew Mylett – Arnold Bennett, The Evening Standard Years, ‘Books and Persons,’ 1926-1931) I am struck by the breadth of subjects on which he wrote. These are not book reviews per se. Rather they are the evidence of an inquiring mind with a pronounced literary bent. Lord Beaverbrook, owner of The Evening Standard and friend of Bennett, I am certain, was of the same opinion. I am equally sure he was hoping that by signing up Bennett, one of Britain’s most popular novelists, would only add to the newspaper’s prestige. Bennett characteristically referred to the articles as “book gossip.”

But what gossip! I’ve already referred to Bennett’s comments on the dearth of young novelists. But he also wrote on publishers who published unoriginal novels, the New School of writing (in which he included Virginia Woolf) and what he considered Thackeray’s cowardice. On the 7th of April 1927 his article on public libraries was published under the title How Libraries Can Form Public Taste: A Popular “County” Novelist. In it he writes of the post of county librarian being advertised by the County of Roxburgh in the Scottish Borders. He does question paying someone in such a post only £3 a week (worth £155 in 2014). He then goes on to add:

…public libraries and their librarians constitute a more important factor in the national life than we are apt in our unimaginativeness to suppose. If Blücher (with Wellington’s aid) won the battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton, we are entitled to say that the battle for sound literary taste must be won in the public libraries.

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Carnegie Public Library in Ayr – source: southayrshirehistory.wordpress.com

In an age that has seen many councils decide that public libraries are no longer either affordable or necessary, his words hark back to the beginning of what was to be a period of expansion in the provision of public access to literature. I also wonder how many other critics spoke so forcefully at the time of the importance of libraries in the cultural life of Great Britain? Bennett was a wealthy man, but he was by nature a democrat who used his position as a bestselling author to encourage the creation of a public that read widely and critically.

He was also a social animal. On the 6th of April, he had lunch with Jane and H.G. Wells, dined with Lord Beaverbrook and then went to a house-warming party given by the leading British interior decorator Syrie Maugham!

 

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