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.

Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace smoking downwards. From

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. 


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

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…

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

NPG x137246; Frank Arthur Swinnerton; Mary Dorothy Swinnerton (nÈe Bennett); Olivia Mary Swinnerton by Bassano

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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


The Literary Taste 2012 review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,300 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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.

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.

A Liebster Award!

Erica, at Reading 1900 – 1950, has very kindly nominated Literary Taste for a Liebster Award, a way of bloggers rewarding their fellow bloggers for their work. Being a recipient of a Liebster means including a link to the nominator’s blog, which I very happily do here:

Reading 1900 – 1950

I will also have to nominate another blog (or perhaps blogs) for a Liebster Award (I ask for your patience). Although not a part of the process I would like to say something about Reading 1900-1950 as a way of saying thank you for the kind things Erica wrote about Literary Taste. Living outside of the UK allows me the privilege of looking at positive aspects of life back in the UK and labelling them “British.” That can include a love of history and tradition, saying “excuse me” and “thank you”, forming queues, eccentricity and individuality, the importance of having a hobby, the seaside, knowing how to make tea and why tea is important in moments of crisis. Without falling too heavily for my usual temptation of flippancy Reading 1900-1950 ticks all of these boxes. It is wonderfully British. It is stamped throughout like a piece of Blackpool rock with the words “Labour of Love.” Light is thrown onto the past, books are unearthed and read once more, a community that would never seek to identify itself as one is created and flourishes. With no thought of financial reward  something good is brought into the world and, if only for a while, the mediocre and commonplace are given a run for their money. I think Erica and all the contributors to Reading 1900-1950 should be congratulated with the drinking of tea and the eating of cake for all that they have achieved to give good books (and some less good too) the chance to shine once more!

I need to also answer questions sent to me by Erica. Here goes.

1. Do you ever read contemporary fiction? If so, what contemporary authors do you enjoy?

In any conversation with friends at work about books, they will always say “But you wouldn’t be interested. The author is still alive.” In my defense I would say a couple of things. I have always suffered from whatever phobia covers fear of all bookshops. This is an area of medical research that is ripe for further investigation, As a child I remember walking into John Smith in Glasgow with my 25p and, after exploring all the departments, buying the same thing every time: Charlie Brown and Peanuts. I do read contemporary fiction but apparently only in Spanish. I am currently reading La Berlina de Prim by the Lorca biographer Ian Gibson, It is a historical novel dealing with the search by an Irish journalist for the murderers of the popular and populist General Prim in 1870. So, the writer is alive but all the characters are dead.

2. What would you say is the particular appeal of reading novels from the first half of the twentieth century?

Style. These books were written by people who did not confuse a confident and stylish use of English with a loss of an authentic writer’s voice.

3. What’s the last book you did not finish, and why?

Another Spanish book comes to mind, El Jinete Polaco by Antonio Muñoz Molina. A lot of Spanish fiction suffers, I feel, from the author pushing his way into the action and telling you loudly what is going on and why it is important.

4. What do you think of literary prizes?

A bit like Cowdenbeath. I know it’s there but it doesn’t really impact on my life.

5. Do you have a favourite lost classic or a book you would recommend to everyone?

I’m glad you asked me this one because it lets me write Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. I feel a number of Spanish authors would benefit from reading it.

6. If you could live in a novel, which one would it be, and why?

It would have to be Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Reading it when I was younger made Lenzie seem a small Scottish town on the outskirts of Glasgow. Which it is.

7. Do you have a favourite place for reading?

Lying in bed.

%d bloggers like this: