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.



Eight graphs in search of an answer

Have I got a real graphathon in store for you graphateers! Eight, that’s right – eight, graphs! I may even have a conclusion too. Just who the heck bought all those books in the nineteenth century?

William Gladstone (1809-19898), prime minister on four occasions, had he looked back on his century would have wondered how there was space for everyone to fit on the country. In his lifetime the population of Great Britain almost doubled:

Population growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

Population growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

It was also a much wealthier country, as measured by GDP, and not by our Dickensian images of urban poverty:

Nominal GDP growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

Nominal GDP growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

Wages, after a rocky start at the beginning of the century and following the victory over Napoleon, either kept inline with prices or, after 1850, often ahead of them:

Changes in prices and wages 1790-1914. Source: 'A History of the Cost of Living' John Burnett

Changes in prices and wages 1790-1914. Source: ‘A History of the Cost of Living’ John Burnett

Railways covered the country. The bursting of the railway bubble in the 1840s was followed by a second burst of railway building in the 1860s and every decade until the First World War, more line was laid:

Construction of railway lines  1827-1910. Source: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Construction of railway lines 1827-1910. Source: National Bureau of Economic Research.

As a result transport costs dropped by 97% (and all the clocks marked noon at the same time throughout the country):

Freight costs shillings per ton mile 1800 - 1865. Source:  'The Transport Revolution in Industrializing Britain: A Survey' Dan Bogart-

Freight costs shillings per ton mile 1800 – 1865. Source: ‘The Transport Revolution in Industrializing Britain: A Survey’ Dan Bogart-

At the same time literacy rates, as measured as bridegrooms and brides who could sign their own names, rose. In the case of women, almost doubling:

Literacy rates among bridegrooms and brides 1841-1900. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Literacy rates among bridegrooms and brides 1841-1900. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

More people, more wealth, a national railway network, falling transport costs, rising wages and more people who could read all had their impact on the world of books. From being the preserve of the rich, they became available to, well, almost everyone:

Price Structure of Books Published 1811-1895. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Price Structure of Books Published 1811-1895. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

With more to choose from:

Published Titles Listed in 'Publishers' Circular' 1840-1901. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Published Titles Listed in ‘Publishers’ Circular’ 1840-1901. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

People chose novels. As the graph shows, although they may have attended church every Sunday, unlike their grand parents at the beginning of the century, they did not want to read about it:

Market share by genre 1814-1899. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Market share by genre 1814-1899. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

So, these are the statistics behind the publishing successes of Dickens, Trollope, Oliphant, Hardy, Gissing, Butler and Eliot; and the even greater, but largely forgotten, successes of Annie S. Swan, Florence Marryat and Frederick William Robinson. A cultural revolution in which the people decided they wanted, above all, to be entertained by what they read.

Are the any flies in that particular ointment? I certainly hope so. If memory serves me right (and it never has up to now) Arthur Marwick in his study of the changes wrought to British society in the First World War, The Deluge, calculated the size of the middle class prior to 1914 as 10 or 11%, approximately 4,600,000 people. That comes to less than the population of Madrid in 2013 and expressed thus, seems too small a statistic with which to factor in to explain the publishing revolution of the previous century. Go further back and it seems even less certain as a cause for the rise of the moderately priced novel. In The History of the Cost Living, John Burnett numbers as 300,000 the new professional class who in the 1850s

constituted the risk-takers and innovators who made the major economic decisions on which Victorian prosperity rested.

Are 300,000 businessmen, industrialists, scientists, metallurgists, bankers and accountants enough to kickstart a middle class literary revolution? Simon Elliot in Some Patterns and Trends in British Publishing 1800-1919 argued that:

[this] simple fact ising population and increasing literacy] alone cannot account for the size and nature of the increase recorded [of book sales in the United Kingdom]

So, probably not.

Possibly it was all to do with purchasing power. The young married couple mentioned by Burnett, living in London, no children, had £200 a year left out of an income of £700 (worth in 2013 £16,200 and  £59,000 respectively) allowing them to not only buy whatever book they wanted but also enjoy a dozen oysters at 1/- and a bottle of champagne at 6/- 6d. An urban workman in 1902-3, weekly wage 29/- 10d (£125 in 2013), after spending 22/- 6d on the weekly food budget still had 7/- 4d (£30.70). Enough perhaps to buy an occasional 1/- Yellowback from a W.H.Smith bookstall in a railway station. Our man Arnold Bennett, on the other hand, grew up in a middle class household (by virtue of his father qualifying as a solicitor when Arnold was nine) with few books. Had he grown up in a working class household, as a previous post showed, there would equally have been no guarantee that he would have grown up surrounded by, at least, the best sellers of the day. The English common reader: a social history of the mass reading public, 1800-1900 has been on my Alibris wishlist for a while. Perhaps it is time to buy it.

Next time. H.G.Wells’ Tono Bungay has been read and a graph will be plotted.

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 MeasuringWorth.com), 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€.

Handy in a fight?

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, Bennett versus Woolf. 

On the 30th March 1931, the Western Daily Press (published in Bristol) reported the death of Arnold Bennett, one of the “greatest figures” in English Literature. He was, in the writer’s opinion, the “technical master” of the novel, in the same lineage as Fielding and Dickens. It includes the telling comment, “As a writer of life he shunned the intellectual standpoint and thereby created better works of art.”

Virginia Woolf would probably have agreed with one part of that final comment, although it is unlikely  she was a regular reader of the Western Daily Press. Checking the index for the essays in Virginia Woolf (edited by Harold Bloom) there is in fact no mention of Bristol, which raises the tantalising possibility that Virginia Woolf did not know where it was, far less subscribe to its newspaper. This is not as fanciful as it seems. Frank Swinnerton, Bennett’s friend, writing in Figures in the Foreground, spoke more than once of the importance of getting out once in a while and meeting people. Virginia Woolf, he felt of all the Bloomsbury group, was particularly bad at that. Whatever the truth of this, it would be fair to say that in any Geography test our man Bennett would have outscored Woolf, particularly anything arising from the catchment areas of the rivers Avon, Trent, Severn and Wye.

How different the history of English literature would have been had they chosen to fight out their diagreements via common entrance examinations in Geography. But they didn’t. According to Margaret Drabble in her biography of Arnold Bennett it was Woolf who took exception to a negative comment in an overall positive review of her book Jacob’s Room. It was Woolf who described Bennett as having a “…a shopkeeper’s view of literature.” A good choice of words on her part. Had she written that he had a solicitor’s view of literature (he had trained for a while to be a solicitor) we probably wouldn’t have known what she meant. He was, in the end, provincial.

Matthew Arnold had a lot to say about provincialism. Prose that was extravagant, he felt, was more than likely to be provincial, and far from his attic ideal. Newspapers carried much of the blame for the prevalence of provincialism in British culture, the brutalité des journaux anglais as he reminds us of how the French looked upon our press. English newspapers are not checked by coming into contact with any centre of intellect or urbanity, “rather they are stimulated by coming into contact with a provincial spirit.” The Western Daily Press for example.

It is tempting to look on all of the above as a wider metaphor for the persistent conflict between between highbrow and middlebrow culture, metropolitan and provincial attitudes in Britain. Given that contained within any understanding of the word “tempting” there has to be something of surrendering to it, then that is what I shall do. I shall surrender to it. All of the above is just that, a metaphor for the division between these two worlds. Should you wonder on which side your own tastes fall, ask yourself this: who would you rather have at your side on the fields of Agincourt, the gun deck of the Victory or the beaches at Dunkirk, a reader of the Western Daily Press or Virginia Woolf?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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