Bennett’s Twelve Best Novels: all Russian

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.


The Bennett family home in Cobridge – pen drawing by Neville Malkin – source


Arnold Bennett was born in 1867 in Hanley in the Potteries. He grew up in a modest house in that town but following his father’s qualification as a solicitor they moved in 1881 to Cobridge. His father had bought a building site there and built a house on it, costing £1,001 (calculated using the measure of historic standard of living as £90,180 in 2015). His adolescence then passed, if not in absolute luxury, then at least in relative luxury, compared to many people in nearby Stafford who earned, on average, 13/- 6d per week (£73.35 measured using the same historic standard of living). He, as we know, moved to London, driven, if not by a desire to escape poverty, then to escape the heavy hand of his father, especially when it came to money (Bennett would always be generous when it came to entertaining and travelling). He would return to the Potteries in some of his best novels, Anna of the Five Towns and The Old Wives’ Tale, for example. But he never regretted the personal, professional and cultural freedom he discovered first in London and then Paris. Throughout his life this theme of discovery of the new, achieved through self-improvement, would appear in his work. It was his self-help book, Literary Taste: How to Form It that inspired me to write this blog.


Nikolai Leskov – inscribed photograph- source Wikipedia.

I do wonder sometimes which of his Books and Persons columns grew out of this set of beliefs. His column of the 10th of February 1927 would appear to be one of these. He may not have chosen the strapline, The Twelve Finest Novels All Russian, but that is the message he wanted to give. As a bestselling English author with a column in The Evening Standard he would have received books from every major UK publisher but, in this column, he chose instead to set the cat amongst the pigeons and praise the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, a contemporary of Tolstoy. Bennett did not discover Leskov for English readers, or indeed any Russian writer. Pushkin had been translated since the 1820s; Tolstoy from the early 1900s and Dostoevsky from the 1910s, largely through the pioneering work of Constance Garnett. But here he was, friend of H.G.Wells, Frank Harris and Lord Beaverbrook (owner of The Evening Standard), introducing Leskov’s short novel The Enchanted Wanderer:

I have been asserting for 20 years that the twelve finest novels are all Russian, and as time passes I find an increasing number of people to agree with me; I have little doubt that the number of people will continue to increase. So that I hope to be excused if I say, as I do say, that the appearance of an English translation of a novel by Lyeskov (or Leskov) is an important event in the literary year.

Of the novel itself he wrote:

The Enchanted Wanderer is a masterpiece – of humour, pathos, romance, and adventure. No novelist ever had a finer narrative gift  than Lyeskov. Even if he was not obviously a genius, his mere technical skill would make him remarkable in the evolution of the art of fiction.

Having read the novel, I cannot help but wonder what I missed. Enjoyable, insightful, at times charming, I could not shake the feeling that I was reading a “one-thing-after-another” novel. The central character, Ivan Flyagin, suffers much pain and heartache until he enters a monastery, as promised to God by his mother when a baby. And that’s about it. This is, however, by-the-by. Arnold Bennett, the local boy made good in the world, thought it worth praising to the readership 0f The Evening Standard. What did they make of it? In a post-war Britain, where Sir Malcolm Campbell had just set a new world land speed record of 174 m.p.h. and Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0 to win the F.A. Cup, did the readers of The Evening Standard buy the novel? Impossible to say, of course. But something did happen to sales of the novel, as can be seen in this Ngram measuring the number of times the title appeared in English:

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 21.02.25

Ngram showing mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer.

This reflects all mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer, such as in Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review of 1927 or The Book-of-the-Month Club news from 1950. But somewhere in that peak of 1927ish is Bennett’s review and I am sure it was good enough for readers of his column to go out and buy the novel. Like Bennett, they too may have looked for the new, and in a novel like this have seen an opportunity for self-improvement.

On the 9th of February, Bennett read of the death of his friend and novelist George Sturt, a now largely forgotten writer on English rural life; and on the 10th, Bennett finished reading Histoire de la Bienheureuse Fille Raton, a rather rude French novel.



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.


Roxburgh, showing rail routes – source:

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.


Carnegie Public Library in Ayr – source:

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!


I am completely operational, and all my circuits are functioning perfectly.

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 Book Genome Project.

What would the DNA of a book look like? According to the Book Genome Project it would look like this for Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden: 

Pandora's Box, and why not?

How do they do this? Here’s what they say on their FAQs page:

Simply put, we trained the computers to read and look for elements of writing style and theme – though differently than a person would – and translate that into an opinion that is consistent across thousands and thousands of books.  In other words, each time the computer looks at a scene, it asks itself, “If I were human, how Dense (among others) would I rate this particular scene?”

Is this anything more than a misplaced metaphor? More than likely. Does that negate the project to measure, not the worth of a book or even its genre, but its structural elements? If this means rejecting the possibility of robots ever reading books I think we’d all agree the answer is a hearty no. 


In a word meta-study. Back to Trollope. There are eleven of his novels listed in the Book Genome Project. By converting the StoryDNA into a numerical value for each book, then we end up with a graph that looks like this:

Nice, isn't it?

Putting aside any objections – moral, literary, personal – what can we learn from the results? Well, money and family stand out as the two key themes in his work; in second rank, jury trialspolitics, social class and letter writing; coming up in third place extended familypolitical office, romance, time and secrets; and trotting along in fourth Catholic institutions and church services. Despite his love of hunting, all things equine come in at a poor 0.3. It would, of course, be easy to explain the importance of family and money in the light of Trollope’s own difficult childhood where the social leanings of his parents were not equalled by his father’s management of his farm. As it is easy, damnit, let’s go with it. 

Does the Book Genome Project tell us anything we don’t already know? Probably not. It just does it faster. With the results of Trollope’s meta-analysis, I feel I’ve got enough useful insight into his works to pass muster at a Trollope literary do. Of course, what the Book Genome Project can’t do  is tell me how good his books are. For that we still need the human touch. For now.

Enough of the theorising about dystopian futures. I promised you facts and facts you will have. The Voyage of the Beagle is now over, the specimens have been examined and a full report is being written for the Society of Travellers and Gentlefolk.

Calculations in search of an explanation.

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, just how much literary taste do I have? 

Time for a time out and ask the question, how much literary taste have I accumulated so far from reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett?  Below in the first chart is the raw data:

The graph!

This can be broadly understood as:

When I'm good I'm very, very good.

Turn it into a pie chart and it looks like this (ignoring any points that have fallen on the dotted line, giving them a value of zero):

Fancy some pie?

Thus giving me a literary taste rating of 59%. However, and I’m sure you saw that coming, what does Not Literary Taste mean? In this calculation it all seems very passive whereas you would think it should be taking a much more active role in determining my literary taste. It is not an absence of literary taste, rather it is a collection of data in its own right which demands to be considered.

So, if 100 equals an average literary taste then the books I read will provide variations, plus and minus, from that mean. This can be expressed as 100 + Literary Taste – Not Literary Taste, in this case (100+59)-41, giving me a result of 118. Thus, according to this calculation, my literary taste is 18 points above the mean. Which, to me at least, sounds better than a literary taste reading of 59%.

All of the above assumes every coordinate is of equal value, i.e. 1. But, and I’m sure you saw that coming too, the position of the coordinate in relation to the dotted line is an indication of the strength, or otherwise, of the literary taste given to me through the reading of a book. Should that not be reflected in any calculation? For example, good coordinates nearer the dotted line should have lesser value than those further away, i.e. the closer to Not Literary Taste the less impact the book has had on me, and the reverse for bad coordinates, as in:

Now for the big sums.

Weighted like this, the coordinates now give a pie chart which looks like this:

Damn, that's good!Using the same weighted data, I come out with a literary taste 84 points above the mean. All of which seems to point out previously unknown depths to my literary taste, and which would doubtless come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. I know what you are going to say. Literary taste is composed of a huge range of ideas, beliefs, prejudices, all of which in turn draw on historical contexts, class backgrounds, that it is pointless to quantify such a nebulous and subjective concept. To that objection I say that we live in a age of wonder and change, where technology strides across the world like a behemoth. It is only a matter of time before someone develops an app for the iPhone.

Meanwhile, I will take refuge in the bucolic idyll of Mary Russell Mitford’s Village Walks and plant a coordinate in the graph once I have read it.

A manner of payment involving very great evils.

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, Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. 

First page (with illustration) of the first appearance of Framley Parsonage in print, in Cornhill Magazine, 1860-1861. Source: Wikipedia.

First page (with illustration) of the first appearance of Framley Parsonage in print, in Cornhill Magazine, 1860-1861. Source: Wikipedia.

Step forward William Green and take a bow. Without him, and countless others (all landowners and tenants), Trollope’s world of high and low churchmen could never have existed. It was William Green’s farmhouse and fields in the parish of Rock in Worcestershire – the Back Green, Little Orchard, House Meadow, Furlong and Upper Meadow (all arable or meadow) – and the £1 10s 8d (valued thus in 1841) he paid in tithes upon them (worth £109 in 2010) that went toward providing the income for the vicar. In The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales, 1894-5 the parish was listed as having a net value of £637 (£57,400 in 2010), more than enough to allow ample free time to any vicar to wonder if he should ally himself with the rich and fast or the rich and humble with it, as Mark Robarts does in Framley Parsonage. 

Anthony Trollope 1815 -1882. Source: Wikipedia.

Anthony Trollope 1815 -1882. Source: Wikipedia.

The paying of tithes is, of course, a requirement laid down in the Bible – Genesis 14:19 is the first of many such commands. Leviticus 25:8-13 also mentions the obligations of forgiving debts and returning slaves every fifty years under the auspices of a jubilee. The Christian churches, however, appear to have put these obligations to one side, along with the prohibition on eating shellfish and killing witches. Tithes are recorded as having been paid in England since the Anglo-Saxon era, usually in the form of a share of the harvest. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 converted these payments in kind into ready cash. Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary, introducing the Bill into the House of Commons said:

Tithe was now, as it was then, a manner of payment involving very great evils, forcing the clergy to forbearance at the expense of what they deemed to be their rights, or leading them to enforce those rights at the expense of the influence which they ought to possess with their parishioners, compelling them to lose either their income by their indulgence, or their popularity by, he would not say, the exaction of what the law gave them for the support of themselves and their families.

To which, I am sure, we would sagely nod our heads and wonder silently just what on Earth he was talking about. But in 1836 these were the things to be debated, pondered and resolved. Maps were therefore drawn up by commissioners in which every English field, meadow, copse and spinney was noted, plotted and valued. It was from these maps, such as the one made available online by Worcestershire Council, that the likes of William Green was asked to cough up his £1 10s 8d. The Dorsetshire tithe maps (the likely inspiration for Trollope’s imaginary Barsetshire) are behind the paywall of so to hell with them.

The location of William Green's land in the Parish of Rock. Source:

The location of William Green’s land in the Parish of Rock.

William Green, and all those like him, are absent from the pages of Framley Parsonage. Trollope, I imagine, did not have to think long and hard to make up his mind to leave them in the fields, praying for wet summers and clear winters. Whatever their opinions were of the internecine struggles between the high and low factions in the Church of England, or whether a vicar should or should not ride with the local hunt, he was merely happy to see them pay their tithes every year, and let others in better-fitting clothes discuss such matters at soirees and the such like. But it is these silent heroes who make Trollope’s delightful machine whirr into action like the enormous whirry thing it is.

Have I, once again, missed the point in my Marxist-light reading of Framley Parsonage? I can only hope so. However, I am not blind to it being filled to the top of the churn with freshly-milked literary taste and I unhesitatingly add a sturdy rural plot of (8,1) to the chart.

How's them apples?

Next time, an attempt to quantify numerically my literary taste.

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.

A picture paints a thousand metaphors

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, Portrait in a Mirror by Charles Morgan, first published in 1929. 

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:, 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

Nigel, the narrator of the Portrait in a Mirror, is a young man, still in his teens, in love with an older woman about to be married. Speaking as a middle-aged man who was once a young man, still in his teens, this is something with which I can identify. He is awkward and socially inept, all of which reminds me why I do not miss my adolescence. He is also a talented artist, and there my identification with Nigel ends. He does lay his head on his beloved’s bosom but with a little more chasteness than your average adolescent boy normally would show in such a situation. Not for the first time in literature, art provides the means of escape from the narrowness of life in the provinces.

The setting is the English shires (or counties, I never remember which) in the mid-1870s. This would put Nigel’s birth in the early to mid-1850s. Looking at the names of British artists born at this time, we come across men such as George Clausen (1854 – 1942) who painted like this: 

The Girl at the Gate. Source

Or there is Edward Wilkin Waites (1854 – 1924) who painted like this:

A Surrey Cottage in June. Source

And then there is the wonderful Alfred Wallis (1855 – 1942) who painted like this:

The Blue Ship. Source

Nigel’s teacher, the painter Henry Fullaton, sees the spirt of originality in his work and also the danger that comes from being a willful taker of risks. The painters I’ve mentioned above, and others I have looked at, do not fit that pattern. Even Alfred Wallis, I’m certain, painted what he saw, whereas Nigel strives to paint what cannot be seen. Charles Morgan (his biography is here) may not have had any British painter in mind when he wrote the novel, but it is striking how little the artists born at this time fit his description of Nigel and his work.

However, when you turn to women artists born at the same time, you find Marianne Stokes (1855 – 1927) who painted like this:

Angel. Source:

Or Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856 – 1927) who painted this:

Melody (Musica). Source:

Or Dame Ethel Walker (1861 – 1951) – yes, I’m stretching the date requirement but if I don’t my argument won’t hold water – who painted this self-portrait in 1925:

Dame Ethel Walker. Source

All, I feel, more challenging, and rewarding, to the viewer than the male artists mentioned above.

Putting aside this spurious argument I’ve developed, one based on nothing but what it is I want to see, what of literary taste in the novel? There’s oodles of it. It fair sloshes around like a bucket filled with champagne. Such is the rigour of its style and pointed nature of its prose, I felt as if I had risen a whole social class by the time I finished it. Suffice to say, I have since sunk back to my usual level. Literary taste, as I have discovered not only has a social element (see the previous blog) it also has more than its fair share of class, and English class at that. A rewarding (3,1) seems a just choice of coordinates.

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.

Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant: a warning from history

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, more real graphs from Google Ngrams and a warning from history from Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant.

Arnold Bennett was born in 1867 and grew up in what many would argue was a golden age in English Literature: Dickens, Thackerary, Gaskell, Trollope, Hardy, the Brontes, Eliot and Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (née Margaret Wilson Oliphant: she married her cousin Francis Wilson Oliphant in 1852), 1828 – 1897. Her entry in the Dictionary of National Biography compared her novels to those of George Eliot, particularly the four novels in her series Chronicles of Carlingford. Margaret Oliphant’s Ngram looks like this:

Whereas George Eliot’s Ngram looks like this:

Search for George Eliot on the BBC shop and you are given the chance to buy one audiobook and four DVDs. Search for Margaret Oliphant and you are given thirty eight results which contain the word “elephant.” Clearly something odd is happening in the zeitgeist

Yet Margaret Oliphant was a profitable, popular and prolific author. After the success of Salem Chapel, the publisher Mr Blackwood paid her £1500 for The Perpetual Curate (worth  £104,000 in 2011 according to, much to the horror of his cashier. According to the online At the Circulating Library – a database of Victorian Fiction, she was, with 62 serialised titles, the most prolific of serial authors; and with 100 titles, she was the most prolific of authors, full stop. Of the authors mentioned above only Trollope makes it into any of these categories, coming in at number five  in Most Prolific Authors with 52 titles.

Of the previous generation of writers, Sir Walter Scott, is often presented as an author driven to write by circumstances, a necessity which, we all know, finally killed him. Scott’s biographer, John Gibson Lockhart, wrote of a party at the Edinburgh home of William Menzies, a Supreme judge at the Cape of Good Hope. A friend asked him to swap seats because he had had enough of watching the hand of a writer hidden in some corner of the room fill page after page without pause. Some stupid clerk, replied someone in the party.  The host quietly reprimanded them by saying “No, boys. I well know what hand it is—’tis Walter Scott’s.” Lockhart finished the anecdote by adding “…this was the hand that, in the evenings of three summer weeks, wrote the two last volumes of Waverley.” However, with his 64 titles as listed by the Dictionary of National Biography, Scott would have come a distant fourth to Margaret Oliphant in the category of Most Prolific Authors in At the Circulating Library.

Like Sir Walter Scott, Margaret Oliphant was obliged to write. Living in Rome because of her husband’s poor health, she was widowed in 1859, in debt to the tune of £1000 (£78,000 in 2012) and pregnant with her third child. Returning to Rome in 1864, she was faced with the further grief of losing her daughter, followed shortly by the return of her recently widowed brother from Canada with his three children, all of whom she took into her home, charging herself with their care and education. Given that they were to be educated at Eton, the money she earned from her multi-volume series was always quickly spent: as the author of her entry in the DNB put it “…her life might have been described as slavery to the pen, if writing had not been a real enjoyment to her.” Her two sons, despite their privileged education, never amounted to much; they died before she did without accomplishing anything of note. She died, after a journey to Sienna, at the age of 69. A few days before her death she had even managed to compose a few lines in honour of Queen Victoria’s jubilee.

Of her 100 titles, Bennett included one in Literary Taste, Salem Chapel. Of George Eliot’s eight, he included five. This is not the place to dispute the statement that although the works of both were comparable, the mind behind Margaret Oilphant’s novels was “…manifestly of less intellectual calibre.” But she was of sufficient importance and held in high regard during her lifetime to have caused Robert Louis Stevenson to charge in on his friend Harry Moors, excitedly waving a sheet of paper in the air, crying out  that he  “…would never guess, if I gave you all morning, who it is who has at last admitted me to be in the front rank of my profession. It is Mrs Oliphant, my dear sir – Mrs Oliphant!” Like the Victorian penny dreadfuls, she seems to have, if not disappeared from the literary zeitgeist, to have slipped far to one side, hidden by the bustles of George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell’s dresses; and like the penny dreadfuls she seems to play only a small part in our conception of the varied forms taken by Victorian literary culture; and like the copy of Marvel’s Avengers No. 1 I bought on Sunday, she is there somewhere in that pliable, personal and subjective entity, known as literary taste.

Coming soon, Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate.


I did not of course of buy a physical copy of Avengers No. 1. As this rather splendid graph shows, even adjusting its 1963 cover price of 12¢ to its 2011 equivalent of 86¢, makes little difference when comparing with the $4,299.99 being asked for a first edition on sale on eBay. I bought it instead from the online comiXology for 1.59€.

Lies, damned statistics and cool graphs

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, real graphs from Google Ngrams that count the number of mentions of a search term in Google Books. 

To detect changes in the zeitgeist has been notoriously difficult. But not now. With the wonderfully elegant Ngram from Google you can track the highs and lows of everything from cheese to Zoroastrianism. Recently, I have been praising Arnold Bennett and Hugh Walpole (as much their personalities as their books) and wondering if I would have liked to have had a pint with Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey (no). As you can see from the Ngrams below I am clearly on the wrong side of history when it comes to our man Bennett and caught between a rock and a hard place with Walpole and Strachey.

Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 did nothing to dent her rising popularity, whereas Bennett’s death in 1931 was followed by a fall in interest that has only begun to level out in the last ten years. The publication in 1956 of the letters  between Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey can clearly be seen in the graph. Reginald Pound’s biography of Bennett published in 1954 could only detain but not reverse his downward trend in interest in him and his works.

Hugh Walpole and Lytton Strachey are the twin dark stars of publishing, their destinies strangely intertwined. Michael Holroyd’s 1967 biography of Lytton Strachey momentarily reawakened (or reflected)  interest in his work, whereas Rupert Hart-Davis’s biography of Hugh Walpole, published in 1952, two years before Bennett’s, maintained interest in him for less than a decade before the downward course began again.

For those of you interested in what a graph of cheese and Zoroastrianism would look like, it looks like this.

Next the works of Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate from 1913 until his death in 1930.

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