Tales from the South Seas

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals.

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

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

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Sylvia Townsend Warner, from the National Portrait Gallery

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

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

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

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

 

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