* * * * *
Once, and not many years since, I contemplated editing a complete edition of Poe, with a brilliant introduction in which I was to show that the appearance of a temperament like his in the United States in the early years of the nineteenth century was the most puzzling miracle that can be found in the whole history of literature. Then, naturally, I intended to explain the miracle. My plans were placed before a wise and good publisher, whose reply was to indicate two very respectable complete editions of Poe which had eminently failed with the public. Further inquiries satisfied me that the public had no immediate use for anything elaborate, final, and expensive concerning Poe. My bright desire therefore paled and flickered out. Since then I have come to the conclusion that I know practically nothing of the "secret of Poe," and that nobody else knows much more.
It was inevitable that, apropos of Poe, our customary national nonsense about the "art of the short story" should have recurred in a painful and acute form. It is a platitude of "Literary Pages" that Anglo-Saxon writers cannot possess themselves of the "art of the short story." The only reason advanced has been that Guy du Maupassant wrote very good short stories, and he was French! God be thanked! Last week we all admitted that Poe had understood the "art of the short story." (His name had not occurred to us before.) Henceforward our platitude will be that no Anglo-Saxon writer can compass the "art of the short story" unless his name happens to be Poe. Another platitude is that the short story is mysteriously somehow more difficult than the long story—the novel. Whenever I meet that phrase, "art of the short story," in the press I feel as if I had drunk mustard and water. And I would like here to state that there are as good short stories in English as in any language, and that the whole theory of the unsuitability of English soil to that trifling plant the short story is ridiculous. Nearly every novelist of the nineteenth century, from Scott to Stevenson, wrote first-class short stories. There are now working in England to-day at least six writers who can write, and have written, better short stories than any living writer of their age in France. As for the greater difficulty of the short story, ask any novelist who has succeeded equally well in both. Ask Thomas Hardy, ask George Meredith, ask Joseph Conrad, ask H.G. Wells, ask Murray Gilchrist, ask George Moore, ask Eden Phillpotts, ask "Q," ask Henry James. Lo! I say to all facile gabblers about the "art of the short story," as the late "C.-B." said to Mr. Balfour: "Enough of this foolery!" It is of a piece with the notion that a fine sonnet is more difficult than a fine epic.
[4 Feb. '09]
As a novelist, a creative artist working in the only literary "form" which widely appeals to the public, I sometimes wonder curiously what the public is. Not often, because it is bad for the artist to think often about the public. I have never by inquiry from those experts my publishers learnt anything useful or precise about the public. I hear the words "the public," "the public," uttered in awe or in disdain, and this is all. The only conclusion which can be drawn from what I am told is that the public is the public. Still, it appears that my chief purchasers are the circulating libraries. It appears that without the patronage of the circulating libraries I should either have to live on sixpence a day or starve. Hence, when my morbid curiosity is upon me, I stroll into Mudie's or the Times Book Club, or I hover round Smith's bookstall at Charing Cross.
* * * * *
The crowd at these places is the prosperous crowd, the crowd which grumbles at income-tax and pays it. Three hundred and seventy-five thousand persons paid income-tax last year, under protest: they stand for the existence of perhaps a million souls, and this million is a handful floating more or less easily on the surface of the forty millions of the population. The great majority of my readers must be somewhere in this million. There can be few hirers of books who neither pay income-tax nor live on terms of dependent equality with those who pay it. I see at the counters people on whose foreheads it is written that they know themselves to be the salt of the earth. Their assured, curt voices, their proud carriage, their clothes, the similarity of their manners, all show that they belong to a caste and that the caste has been successful in the struggle for life. It is called the middle-class, but it ought to be called the upper-class, for nearly everything is below it. I go to the Stores, to Harrod's Stores, to Barker's, to Rumpelmeyer's, to the Royal Academy, and to a dozen clubs in Albemarle Street and Dover Street, and I see again just the same crowd, well-fed, well-dressed, completely free from the cares which beset at least five-sixths of the English race. They have worries; they take taxis because they must not indulge in motor-cars, hansoms because taxis are an extravagance, and omnibuses because they really must economize. But they never look twice at twopence. They curse the injustice of fate, but secretly they are aware of their luck. When they have nothing to do, they say, in effect: "Let's go out and spend something." And they go out. They spend their lives in spending. They deliberately gaze into shop windows in order to discover an outlet for their money. You can catch them at it any day.
* * * * *
I do not belong to this class by birth. Artists very seldom do. I was born slightly beneath it. But by the help of God and strict attention to business I have gained the right of entrance into it. I admit that I have imitated its deportment, with certain modifications of my own; I think its deportment is in many respects worthy of imitation. I am acquainted with members of it; some are artists like myself; a few others win my sympathy by honestly admiring my work; and the rest I like because I like them. But the philosopher in me cannot, though he has tried, melt away my profound and instinctive hostility to this class. Instead of decreasing, my hostility grows. I say to myself: "I can never be content until this class walks along the street in a different manner, until that now absurd legend has been worn clean off its forehead." Henry Harland was not a great writer, but he said: Il faut souffrir pour etre sel. I ask myself impatiently: "When is this salt going to begin to suffer?" That is my attitude towards the class. I frequent it but little. Nevertheless I know it intimately, nearly all the intimacy being on my side. For I have watched it during long, agreeable, sardonic months and years in foreign hotels. In foreign hotels you get the essence of it, if not the cream.
* * * * *
Chief among its characteristics—after its sincere religious worship of money and financial success—I should put its intense self-consciousness as a class. The world is a steamer in which it is travelling saloon. Occasionally it goes to look over from the promenade deck at the steerage. Its feelings towards the steerage are kindly. But the tone in which it says "the steerage" cuts the steerage off from it more effectually than many bulkheads. You perceive also from that tone that it could never be surprised by anything that the steerage might do. Curious social phenomenon, the steerage! In the saloon there runs a code, the only possible code, the final code; and it is observed. If it is not observed, the infraction causes pain, distress. Another marked characteristic is its gigantic temperamental dullness, unresponsiveness to external suggestion, a lack of humour—in short, a heavy and half-honest stupidity: ultimate product of gross prosperity, too much exercise, too much sleep. Then I notice a grim passion for the status quo. This is natural. Let these people exclaim as they will against the structure of society, the last thing they desire is to alter it. This passion shows itself in a naive admiration for everything that has survived its original usefulness, such as sail-drill and uniforms. Its mirror of true manhood remains that excellent and appalling figure, the Brushwood Boy. The passion for the status quo also shows itself in a general defensive, sullen hatred of all ideas whatever. You cannot argue with these people. "Do you really think so?" they will politely murmur, when you have asserted your belief that the earth is round, or something like that. And their tone says: "Would you mind very much if we leave this painful subject? My feelings on it are too deep for utterance." Lastly, I am impressed by their attitude towards the artist, which is mediaeval, or perhaps Roman. Blind to nearly every form of beauty, they scorn art, and scorning art they scorn artists. It was this class which, at inaugurations of public edifices, invented the terrible toast-formula, "The architect and contractor." And if epics were inaugurated by banquet, this class would certainly propose the health of the poet and printer, after the King and the publishers. Only sheer ennui sometimes drives it to seek distraction in the artist's work. It prefers the novelist among artists because the novel gives the longest surcease from ennui at the least expenditure of money and effort.
* * * * *
It is inevitable that I shall be accused of exaggeration, cynicism, or prejudice: probably all three. Whenever one tells the truth in this island of compromise, one is sure to be charged on these counts, and to be found guilty. But I too am of the sporting race, and forty years have taught me that telling the truth is the most dangerous and most glorious of all forms of sport. Alpine climbing in winter is nothing to it. I like it. I will only add that I have been speaking of the solid bloc of the caste; I admit the existence of a broad fringe of exceptions. And I truly sympathize with the bloc. I do not blame the bloc. I know that the members of the bloc are, like me, the result of evolutionary forces now spent. My hostility to the bloc is beyond my control, an evolutionary force gathering way. Upon my soul, I love the bloc. But when I sit among it, clothed in correctness, and reflect that the bloc maintains me and mine in a sort of comfort, because I divert its leisure, the humour of the situation seems to me enormous.
* * * * *
[11 Feb '09]
I continue my notes on the great, stolid, comfortable class which forms the backbone of the novel-reading public. The best novelists do not find their material in this class. Thomas Hardy never. H.G. Wells, almost never; now and then he glances at it ironically, in an episodic manner. Hale White (Mark Rutherford), never. Rudyard Kipling, rarely; when he touches it, the reason is usually because it happens to embrace the military caste, and the result is usually such mawkish stories as "William the Conqueror" and "The Brushwood Boy." J.M. Barrie, never. W.W. Jacobs, never. Murray Gilchrist, never. Joseph Conrad, never. Leonard Merrick, very slightly. George Moore, in a "Drama in Muslin," wrote a masterpiece about it twenty years ago; "Vain Fortune" is also good; but for a long time it had ceased to interest the artist in him, and his very finest work ignores it. George Meredith was writing greatly about it thirty years ago. Henry James, with the chill detachment of an outlander, fingers the artistic and cosmopolitan fringe of it. In a rank lower than these we have William de Morgan and John Galsworthy. The former does not seem to be inspired by it. As for John Galsworthy, the quality in him which may possibly vitiate his right to be considered a major artist is precisely his fierce animosity to this class. Major artists are seldom so cruelly hostile to anything whatever as John Galsworthy is to this class. He does in fiction what John Sargent does in paint; and their inimical observation of their subjects will gravely prejudice both of them in the eyes of posterity. I think I have mentioned all the novelists who have impressed themselves at once on the public and genuinely on the handful of persons whose taste is severe and sure. There may be, there are, other novelists alive whose work will end by satisfying the tests of the handful. Whether any of these others deal mainly with the superior stolid comfortable, I cannot certainly say; but I think not. I am ready to assert that in quite modern English fiction there exists no large and impartial picture of the superior stolid comfortable which could give pleasure to a reader of taste. Rather hard on the class that alone has made novel-writing a profession in which a man can earn a reasonable livelihood!
* * * * *
The explanation of this state of affairs is obscure. True, that distinguished artists are very seldom born into the class. But such an explanation would be extremely inadequate. Artists often move creatively with ease far beyond the boundaries of their native class. Thomas Hardy is not a peasant, nor was Stendhal a marquis. I could not, with any sort of confidence, offer an explanation. I am, however, convinced that only a supreme artist could now handle successfully the material presented by the class in question. The material itself lacks interest, lacks essential vitality, lacks both moral and spectacular beauty. It powerfully repels the searcher after beauty and energy. It may be in a decay. One cannot easily recall a great work of art of which the subject is decadence.
The backbone of the novel-reading public is excessively difficult to please, and rarely capable of enthusiasm. Listen to Mudie subscribers on the topic of fiction, and you will scarcely ever hear the accent of unmixed pleasure. It is surprising how even favourites are maltreated in conversation. Some of the most successful favourites seem to be hated, and to be read under protest. The general form of approval is a doubtful "Ye-es!" with a whole tail of unspoken "buts" lying behind it. Occasionally you catch the ecstatic note, "Oh! Yes; a sweet book!" Or, with masculine curtness: "Fine book, that!" (For example, "The Hill," by Horace Annesley Vachell!) It is in the light of such infrequent exclamations that you may judge the tepid reluctance of other praise. The reason of all this is twofold; partly in the book, and partly in the reader. The backbone dislikes the raising of any question which it deems to have been decided: a peculiarity which at once puts it in opposition to all fine work, and to nearly all passable second-rate work. It also dislikes being confronted with anything that it considers "unpleasant," that is to say, interesting. It has a genuine horror of the truth neat. It quite honestly asks "to be taken out of itself," unaware that to be taken out of itself is the very last thing it really desires. What it wants is to be confirmed in itself. Its religion is the status quo. The difficulties of the enterprise of not offending it either in subject or treatment are, perhaps, already sufficiently apparent. But incomparably the greatest obstacle to pleasing it lies in the positive fact that it prefers not to be pleased. It undoubtedly objects to the very sensations which an artist aims to give. If I have heard once, I have heard fifty times resentful remarks similar to: "I'm not going to read any more bosh by him! Why, I simply couldn't put the thing down!" It is profoundly hostile to art, and the empire of art. It will not willingly yield. Its attitude to the magic spell is its attitude to the dentist's gas-bag. This is the most singular trait that I have discovered in the backbone.
* * * * *
Why, then, does the backbone put itself to the trouble of reading current fiction? The answer is that it does so, not with any artistic, spiritual, moral, or informative purpose, but simply in order to pass time. Lately, one hears, it has been neglecting fiction in favour of books of memoirs, often scandalous, and historical compilations, for the most part scandalous sexually. That it should tire of the fiction offered to it is not surprising, seeing that it so seldom gets the fiction of its dreams. The supply of good, workmanlike fiction is much larger to-day than ever it was in the past. The same is to be said of the supply of genuinely distinguished fiction. But the supply of fiction which really appeals to the backbone of the fiction-reading public is far below the demand. The backbone grumbles, but it continues to hire the offensive stuff, because it cannot obtain sufficient of the inoffensive—and time hangs so heavy! The caprice for grape-nut history and memoirs cannot endure, for it is partially a pose. Besides, the material will run short. After all, Napoleon only had a hundred and three mistresses, and we are already at Mademoiselle Georges. The backbone, always loyal to its old beliefs, will return to fiction with a new gusto, and the cycle of events will recommence.
* * * * *
But it is well for novelists to remember that, in the present phase of society and mechanical conditions of the literary market their professional existence depends on the fact that the dullest class in England takes to novels merely as a refuge from its own dullness. And while it is certain that no novelist of real value really pleases that class, it is equally certain that without its support (willing or unwilling—usually the latter) no novelist could live by his pen. Remove the superior stolid comfortable, and the circulating libraries would expire. And exactly when the circulating libraries breathed their last sigh the publishers of fiction would sympathetically give up the ghost. If you happen to be a literary artist, it makes you think—the reflection that when you dine you eat the bread unwillingly furnished by the enemies of art and of progress!
THE POTENTIAL PUBLIC
[18 Feb. '09]
I want to dig a little deeper through the strata of the public. Below the actual fiction-reading public which I have described there is a much vaster potential public. It exists in London, and it exists also in the provinces. I will describe it as I have found it in the industrial midlands and north. Should the picture seem black, let me say that my picture of a similar public in London would be even blacker. In all essential qualities I consider the lower middle-class which regards, say, Manchester as its centre, to be superior to the lower middle-class which regards Charing Cross as its centre.
* * * * *
All around Manchester there are groups of municipalities which lie so close to one another that each group makes one town. Take a medium group comprising a quarter of a million inhabitants, with units ranging from sixty down to sixteen thousand. I am not going to darken my picture with a background of the manual workers, the immense majority of whom never read anything that costs more than a penny—unless it be "Gale's Special." I will deal only with the comparatively enlightened crust—employers, clerks, officials, and professional men, and their families—which has formed on the top of the mass, with an average income of possibly two hundred per annum per family. This crust is the elite of the group. It represents its highest culture, and in bulk it is the "lower middle-class" of Tory journalism. In London some of the glitter of the class above it is rubbed on to it by contact. One is apt to think that because there are bookshops in the Strand and large circulating libraries in Oxford Street, and these thoroughfares are thronged with the lower middle-class, therefore the lower middle-class buys or hires books. In my industrial group the institutions and machinery perfected by the upper class for itself do not exist at all, and one may watch the lower without danger of being led to false conclusions by the accidental propinquity of phenomena that have really nothing whatever to do with it.
* * * * *
Now in my group of a quarter of a million souls there is not a single shop devoted wholly or principally to the sale of books. Not one. You might discover a shop specializing in elephants or radium; but a real bookshop does not exist. In a town of forty thousand inhabitants there will be a couple of stationers, whose chief pride is that they are "steam printers" or lithographers. Enter their shops, and you will see a few books. Tennyson in gilt. Volumes of the Temple Classics or Everyman. Hymn-books, Bibles. The latest cheap Shakespeare. Of new books no example except the brothers Hocking. The stationer will tell you that there is no demand for books; but that he can procure anything you specially want by return of post. He will also tell you that on the whole he makes no profit out of books; what trifle he captures on his meagre sales he loses on books unsold. He may inform you that his rival has entirely ceased to stock books of any sort, and that he alone stands for letters in the midst of forty thousand people. In a town of sixty thousand there will be a largeish stationer's with a small separate book department. Contents similar to the other shop, with a fair selection of cheap reprints, and half a dozen of the most notorious new novels, such as novels by Marie Corelli, Max Pemberton, Mrs. Humphry Ward. That is all. Both the shops described will have two or three regular book-buying clients, not more than ten in a total of a hundred thousand. These ten are book-lovers. They follow the book lists. They buy to the limit of their purses. And in the cult of literature they keep themselves quite apart from the society of the town, despising it. The town is simply aware that they are "great readers."
* * * * *
Another agency for the radiation of light in the average town first mentioned is the Municipal Free Library. The yearly sum spent on it is entirely inadequate to keep it up to date. A fraction of its activity is beneficial, as much to the artisan as to members of the crust. But the chief result of the penny-in-the-pound rate is to supply women old and young with outmoded, viciously respectable, viciously sentimental fiction. A few new novels get into the Library every year. They must, however, be "innocuous," that is to say, devoid of original ideas. This, of course, is inevitable in an institution presided over by a committee which has infinitely less personal interest in books than in politics or the price of coal. No Municipal Library can hope to be nearer than twenty-five years to date. Go into the average good home of the crust, in the quietude of "after-tea," and you will see a youthful miss sitting over something by Charlotte M. Yonge or Charles Kingsley. And that something is repulsively foul, greasy, sticky, black. Remember that it reaches from thirty to a hundred such good homes every year. Can you wonder that it should carry deposits of jam, egg, butter, coffee, and personal dirt? You cannot. But you are entitled to wonder why the Municipal Sanitary Inspector does not inspect it and order it to be destroyed.... That youthful miss in torpidity over that palimpsest of filth is what the Free Library has to show as the justification of its existence. I know what I am talking about.
* * * * *
A third agency is the book-pedlar. There are firms of publishers who never advertise in any literary weekly or any daily, who never publish anything new, and who may possibly be unknown to Simpkins themselves. They issue badly printed, badly bound, showy editions of the eternal Scott and the eternal Dickens, in many glittering volumes with scores of bleared illustrations, and they will sell them up and down the provinces by means of respectably dressed "commission agents," at prices much in excess of their value, to an ingenuous, ignorant public that has never heard of Dent and Routledge. The books are found in houses where the sole function of literature is to flatter the eye. The ability of these subterranean firms to dispose of deplorable editions to persons who do not want them is in itself a sharp criticism of the commercial organization of the more respectable trade.
* * * * *
Let it not be supposed that my group is utterly cut off from the newest developments in imaginative prose literature. No! What the bookseller, the book-pedlar, and the Free Library have failed to do, has been accomplished by Mr. Jesse Boot, incidentally benefactor of the British provinces and the brain of a large firm of chemists and druggists with branches in scores, hundreds, of towns. He has several branches in my group. Each branch has a circulating library, patronized by the class which has only heard of Mudie, and has not heard of the Grosvenor. Mr. Jesse Boot has had the singular and beautiful idea of advertising his wares by lending books to customers and non-customers at a loss of ten thousand a year. His system is simplicity and it is cheapness. He is generous. If you desire a book which he has not got in stock he will buy it and lend it to you for twopence. Thus in the towns of my group the effulgent centre of culture is the chemist's shop. The sole point of contact with living literature is the chemist's shop. A wonderful world, this England! Two things have principally struck me about Mr. Jesse Boot's [Now Sir Jesse Boot] clients. One is that they are usually women, and the other is that they hire their books at haphazard, nearly in the dark, with no previous knowledge of what is good and what is bad.
* * * * *
It is to be added that the tremendous supply of sevenpenny bound volumes of modern fiction, and of shilling bound volumes of modern belles-lettres (issued by Nelsons and others), is producing a demand in my group, is, in fact, making book-buyers where previously there were no book-buyers. These tomes now rival the works of the brothers Hocking in the stationer's shop. Their standard is decidedly above the average, owing largely to the fact that the guide-in-chief of Messrs. Nelsons happens to be a genuine man of letters. I am told that Messrs. Nelsons alone sell twenty thousand volumes a week. Yet even they have but scratched the crust. The crust is still only the raw material of a new book public.
* * * * *
If it is cultivated and manufactured with skill it will surpass immeasurably in quantity, and quite appreciably in quality, the actual book public. One may say that the inception of the process has been passably good. One is inclined to prophesy that within a moderately short period—say a dozen years—the centre of gravity of the book market will be rudely shifted. But the event is not yet.
[4 Mar. '09]
Wells! I have heard that significant monosyllable pronounced in various European countries, and with various bizarre accents. And always there was admiration, passionate or astonished, in the tone. But the occasion of its utterance which remains historic in my mind was in England. I was, indeed, in Frank Richardson's Bayswater. "Wells?" exclaimed a smart, positive little woman—one of those creatures that have settled every question once and for all beyond reopening, "Wells? No! I draw the line at Wells. He stirs up the dregs. I don't mind the froth, but dregs I—will—not have!" And silence reigned as we stared at the reputation of Wells lying dead on the carpet. When, with the thrill of emotion that a great work communicates, I finished reading "Tono-Bungay," I thought of the smart little woman in the Bayswater drawing-room. I was filled with a holy joy because Wells had stirred up the dregs again, and more violently than ever. I rapturously reflected, "How angry this will make them!" "Them" being the whole innumerable tribe of persons, inane or chumpish (this adjective I give to the world), who don't mind froth but won't have dregs. Human nature—you get it pretty complete in "Tono-Bungay," the entire tableau! If you don't like the spectacle of man whole, if you are afraid of humanity, if humanity isn't good enough for you, then you had better look out for squalls in the perusal of "Tono-Bungay." For me, human nature is good enough. I love to bathe deep in it. And of "Tono-Bungay" I will say, with solemn heartiness: "By God! This is a book!"
* * * * *
You will have heard that it is the history of a patent medicine—the nostrum of the title. But the rise and fall of Tono-Bungay and its inventor make only a small part of the book. It is rather the history of the collision of the soul of George Ponderevo (narrator, and nephew of the medicine-man) with his epoch. It is the arraignment of a whole epoch at the bar of the conscience of a man who is intellectually honest and powerfully intellectual. George Ponderevo transgresses most of the current codes, but he also shatters them. The entire system of sanctions tumbles down with a clatter like the fall of a corrugated iron church. I do not know what is left standing, unless it be George Ponderevo. I would not call him a lovable, but he is an admirable, man. He is too ruthless, rude, and bitter to be anything but solitary. His harshness is his fault, his one real fault; and his harshness also marks the point where his attitude towards his environment becomes unscientific. The savagery of his description of the family of Frapp, the little Nonconformist baker, and of the tea-drinkers in the housekeeper's room at Bladesover, somewhat impairs even the astounding force of this, George's first and only novel—not because he exaggerates the offensiveness of the phenomena, but because he unscientifically fails to perceive that these people are just as deserving of compassion as he is himself. He seems to think that, in their deafness to the call of the noble in life, these people are guilty of a crime; whereas they are only guilty of a misfortune. The one other slip that George Ponderevo has made is a slight yielding to the temptation of caricature, out of place in a realistic book. Thus he names a half-penny paper, "The Daily Decorator," and a journalistic peer, "Lord Boom." Yet the few lines in which he hints at the tactics and the psychology of his Lord Boom are masterly. So much for the narrator, whose "I" writes the book. I assume that Wells purposely left these matters uncorrected, as being essential to the completeness of George's self-revelation.
* * * * *
I do not think that any novelist ever more audaciously tried, or failed with more honour, to render in the limits of one book the enormous and confusing complexity of a nation's racial existence. The measure of success attained is marvellous. Complete success was, of course, impossible. But, in the terrific rout, Ponderevo never touches a problem save to grip it firmly. He leaves nothing alone, and everything is handled—handled! His fine detachment, and his sublime common sense, never desert him in the hour when he judges. Naturally his chief weapon in the collision is just common sense; it is at the impact of mere common sense that the current system crumbles. It is simply unanswerable common sense which will infuriate those who do not like the book. When common sense rises to the lyric, as it does in the latter half of the tale, you have something formidable. Here Wells has united the daily verifiable actualism of novels like "Love and Mr. Lewisham" and "Kipps," with the large manner of the paramount synthetic scenes in (what general usage compels me to term) his "scientific romances." In the scientific romance he achieved, by means of parables (I employ the word roughly) a criticism of tendencies and institutions which is on the plane of epic poetry. For example, the criticism of specialization in "The First Men in the Moon," the mighty ridicule of the institution of sovereignty in "When the Sleeper Wakes," and the exquisite blighting of human narrow-mindedness in "The Country of the Blind"—this last one of the radiant gems of contemporary literature, and printed in the Strand Magazine! In "Tono-Bungay" he has achieved the same feat, magnified by ten—or a hundred, without the aid of symbolic artifice. I have used the word "epic," and I insist on it. There are passages toward the close of the book which may fitly be compared with the lyrical freedoms of no matter what epic, and which display an unsurpassable dexterity of hand. Such is the scene in which George deflects his flying-machine so as to avoid Beatrice and her horse by sweeping over them. A new thrill, there, in the sexual vibrations! One thinks of it afterwards. And yet such flashes are lost when one contemplates the steady shining of the whole. "Tono-Bungay," to my mind, marks the junction of the two paths which the variety of Wells's gift has enabled him to follow simultaneously, and, at the same time, it is his most distinguished and most powerful book.
* * * * *
I have spoken of the angry and the infuriated. Fury can be hot or cold. Of the cold variety is Claudius Clear's in the British Weekly. "Extremely clever," says Claudius Clear. "There is, however, no sign of any new power." But, by way of further praise: "The episodes are carefully selected and put together with skill, and there are few really dull passages." This about the man of whom Maeterlinck has written that he has "the most complete and the most logical imagination of the age." (I think Claudius Clear may have been under the impression that he was reviewing a two-hundred-and-fifty-guinea prize novel, selected by Messrs. Lang and Shorter.) Further, "He writes always from the point of a B.Sc." But the most humorous part of the criticism is this. After stating that Ponderevo acknowledges himself to be a liar, a swindler, a thief, an adulterer, and a murderer, Claudius Clear then proceeds: "He is not in the least ashamed of these things. He explains them away with the utmost facility, and we find him at the age of forty-five, not unhappy, and successfully engaged in problems of aerial navigation" (my italics). Oh! candid simplicity of soul! Wells, why did you not bring down the wrath of God, or at least make the adulterer fail in the problems of flight? In quoting a description of the Frapps, Claudius Clear says: "I must earnestly apologize for extracting the following passage." Why? As Claudius Clear gets into his third column his fury turns from cold to hot: "It is impossible for me in these columns to reproduce or to describe the amorous episodes in 'Tono-Bungay.' I cannot copy and I cannot summarize the loathsome tale of George Ponderevo's engagement and marriage and divorce. Nor can I speak of his intrigue with a typist, and of the orgy of lust described at the close of the book...." Now, there is not a line in the book that could not be printed in the British Weekly. There is not a line which fails in that sober decency which is indispensable to the dignity of a masterpiece. As for George's engagement and marriage, it is precisely typical of legions such in England and Scotland. As for the intrigue with a typist, has Claudius Clear never heard of an intrigue with a typist before? In faithfully and decently describing an intrigue with a typist, has one necessarily written a "Justine"? And why "orgy of lust"? Orgy of fiddlestick—if I am not being irreverent! The most correct honeymoon is an orgy of lust; and if it isn't, it ought to be. But some temperaments find a strange joy in using the word "lust." See the infuriating disquisition on "Mrs. Grundy" in "Tono-Bungay." The odd thing is, having regard to the thunders of Claudius Clear, that George Ponderevo is decidedly more chaste than nine men out of ten, and than ninety-nine married men out of every hundred. And the book emanates an austerity and a self-control which are quite conspicuous at the present stage of fiction, and which one would in vain search for amid the veiled concupiscence of at least one author whom Claudius Clear has praised, and, I think, never blamed—at least on that score. I leave him to guess the author.
[Sidenote:18 Mar. '09]
One of the most noteworthy of recent publications in the way of fiction is Anton Tchehkoff's "The Kiss and Other Stories," translated by Mr. R.E.C. Long and published by Duckworth (6s.). A similar volume, "The Black Monk" (same translator and publisher), was issued some years ago. Tchehkoff lived and made a tremendous name in Russia, and died, and England recked not. He has been translated into French, and I believe that there exists a complete edition of his works in German; but these two volumes are all that we have in English. The thanks of the lettered are due to Mr. Long and to his publisher. Tchehkoff's stories are really remarkable. If any one of authority stated that they rank him with the fixed stars of Russian fiction—Dostoievsky, Tourgeniev, Gogol, and Tolstoy—I should not be ready to contradict. To read them, after even the finest stories of de Maupassant or Murray Gilchrist, is like having a bath after a ball. Their effect is extraordinarily one of ingenuousness. Of course they are not in the least ingenuous, as a fact, but self-conscious and elaborate to the highest degree. The progress of every art is an apparent progress from conventionality to realism. The basis of convention remains, but as the art develops it finds more and more subtle methods fitting life to the convention or the convention to life—whichever you please. Tchehkoff's tales mark a definite new conquest in this long struggle. As you read him you fancy that he must always have been saying to himself: "Life is good enough for me. I won't alter it. I will set it down as it is." Such is the tribute to his success which he forces from you.
* * * * *
He seems to have achieved absolute realism. (But there is no absolute, and one day somebody—probably a Russian—will carry realism further.) His climaxes are never strained; nothing is ever idealized, sentimentalized, etherealized; no part of the truth is left out, no part is exaggerated. There is no cleverness, no startling feat of virtuosity. All appears simple, candid, almost childlike. I could imagine the editor of a popular magazine returning a story of Tchehkoff's with the friendly criticism that it showed promise, and that when he had acquired more skill in hitting the reader exactly between the eyes a deal might be possible. Tchehkoff never hits you between the eyes. But he will, nevertheless, leave you on the flat of your back. Beneath the outward simplicity of his work is concealed the most wondrous artifice, the artifice that is embedded deep in nearly all great art. All we English novelists ought to study "The Kiss" and "The Black Monk." They will delight every person of fine taste, but to the artist they are a profound lesson. We have no writer, and we have never had one, nor has France, who could mould the material of life, without distorting it, into such complex forms to such an end of beauty. Read these books, and you will genuinely know something about Russia; you will be drenched in the vast melancholy, savage and wistful, of Russian life; and you will have seen beauty. No tale in "The Kiss" is quite as marvellous as either the first or the last tale in "The Black Monk," perhaps; but both volumes are indispensable to one's full education. I do not exaggerate. I must add that on a reader whose taste is neither highly developed nor capable of high development, the effect of the stories will be similar to their effect on the magazine editor.
THE SURREY LABOURER
[1 Apr. '09]
It is a great pleasure to see that Mr. George Bourne's "Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer" (Duckworth) has, after two years, reached the distinction of a cheap edition at half a crown. I shall be surprised if this book does not continue to sell for about a hundred years. And yet, also, I am surprised that a cheap edition should have come so soon. The "Memoirs" were very well received on their original publication in 1907; some of the reviews were indeed remarkable in the frankness with which they accepted the work as a masterpiece of portraiture and of sociological observation. But the book had no boom such as Mr. John Lane recently contrived for another very good and not dissimilar book, Mr. Stephen Reynolds's "A Poor Man's House." Mr. Stephen Reynolds was more chattered about by literary London in two months than Mr. George Bourne has been in the eight years which have passed since he published his first book about Frederick Bettesworth, the Surrey labourer in question. Mr. Bourne will owe his popularity in 2009 to the intrinsic excellence of his work, but he owes his popularity in 1909 to the dogged and talkative enthusiasm of a few experts in the press and in the world, and of his publishers. There have been a handful of persons who were determined to make this exceedingly fine book sell, or perish themselves in the attempt; and it has sold. But not with the help of mandarins. It is not in the least the kind of book to catch the roving eye of a mandarin. It is too proud, too austere, too true, and too tonically cruel to appeal to mandarins. It abounds not at all in quotable passages. Its subtitle is: "A Record of the Last Year of Frederick Bettesworth." The mandarins who happened to see it no doubt turned to seek the death scene at the close, with thoughts of how quotably Ian Maclaren would have described the death of the old labourer, worn out by honest and ill-paid toil, surrounded by his beloved fields, and so forth and so forth. And Mr. George Bourne's description of his hero's death would no doubt put them right off. I give it in full: "July 25 (Thursday).—Bettesworth died this evening at six o'clock." Oh, Colonel Newcome, sugared tears, golden gates, glimmering panes, passings, pilots, harbour bars—had Mr. George Bourne never heard of you?
[1 Apr '09]
I should like to assume that all enlightened and curious readers have already perused this book and its forerunner, "The Bettesworth Book" (Lamley and Co.), of which a cheap edition is soon to be had. But my irritating mania for stopping facts in the street and gazing at them makes it impossible for me to assume any such thing. I am perfectly certain that to about 70 per cent. of you the name of George Bourne means naught. I therefore need not apologize for offering the information that these books are books. They set forth the psychology and the everything else of the backbone, foundation, and original stock of the English race. They deal with England. Naturally, the sacred name of England will call up in your mind visions of the Carlton Club, Blenheim, Regent Street, Tubes, Selfridge's, theatre stalls, the crowd at Lord's, and the brilliant writers of the New Age. And these phenomena are a part of England; but I tell you that they are all only the froth on the surface of Bettesworth the labourer. If you regard this as a cryptic saying, read the two books, and you will see light.
[Sidenote:22 Apr. '09]
On Good Friday night I was out in the High Street, at the cross-roads, where the warp and the woof of the traffic assault each other under a great glare of lamps. The shops were closed and black, except where a tobacconist kept the tobacconist's bright and everlasting vigil; but above the shops occasional rare windows were illuminated, giving hints—dressing-tables, pictures, gas-globes—of intimate private lives. I don't know why such hints should always seem to me pathetic, saddening; but they do. And beneath them, through the dark defile of shutters, motor-omnibuses roared and swayed and curved, too big for the street, and dwarfing it. And automobiles threaded between them, and bicycles dared the spaces that were left. From afar off there came a flying light, like a shot out of a gun, and it grew into a man perched on a shuddering contrivance that might have been invented by H.G. Wells, and swept perilously into the contending currents, and by miracles emerged untouched, and was gone, driven by the desire of the immortal soul within the man. This strange thing happened again and again. The pavements were crowded with hurrying or loitering souls, and the omnibuses and autos were full of them: hundreds passed before the vision every moment. And they were all preoccupied; they nearly all bore the weary, egotistic melancholy that spreads like an infection at the close of a fete day in London; the lights of a motor-omnibus would show the rapt faces of sixteen souls at once in their glass cage, driving the vehicle on by their desires. The policeman and the loafers in the ring of fire made by the public-houses at the cross-roads—even these were grave with the universal affliction of life, and grim with the relentless universal egotism. Lovers walked as though there were no heaven and no earth, but only themselves in space. Nobody but me seemed to guess that the road to Delhi could be as naught to this road, with its dark, fleeing shapes, its shifting beams, its black brick precipices, and its thousand pale, flitting faces of a gloomy and decadent race. As says the Indian proverb, I met ten thousand men on the Putney High Street, and they were all my brothers. But I alone was aware of it. As I stood watching autobus after autobus swing round in a fearful semi-circle to begin a new journey, I gazed myself into a mystic comprehension of the significance of what I saw. A few yards beyond where the autobuses turned was a certain house with lighted upper windows, and in that house the greatest lyric versifier that England ever had, and one of the great poets of the whole world and of all the ages, was dying: a name immortal. But nobody looked; nobody seemed to care; I doubt if any one thought of it. This enormous negligence appeared to me to be fine, to be magnificently human.
* * * * *
The next day all the shops were open, and hundreds of fatigued assistants were pouring out their exhaustless patience on thousands of urgent and bright women; and flags waved on high, and the gutters were banked with yellow and white flowers, and the air was brisk and the roadways were clean. The very vital spirit of energy seemed to have scattered the breath of life generously, so that all were intoxicated by it in the gay sunshine. He was dead then. The waving posters said it. When Tennyson died I felt less hurt; for I had serious charges to bring against Tennyson, which impaired my affection for him. But I was more shocked. When Tennyson died, everybody knew it, and imaginatively realized it. Everybody was touched. I was saddened then as much by the contagion of a general grief as by a sorrow of my own. But there was no general grief on Saturday. Swinburne had written for fifty years, and never once moved the nation, save inimically, when "Poems and Ballads" came near to being burnt publicly by the hangman. (By "the nation," I mean newspaper readers. The real nation, busy with the problem of eating, dying, and being born all in one room, has never heard of either Tennyson or Swinburne or George R. Sims.) There are poems of Tennyson, of Wordsworth, even of the speciously recondite Browning, that have entered into the general consciousness. But nothing of Swinburne's! Swinburne had no moral ideas to impart. Swinburne never publicly yearned to meet his Pilot face to face. He never galloped on one of Lord George Sanger's horses from Aix to Ghent. He was interested only in ideal manifestations of beauty and force. Except when he grieved the judicious by the expression of political crudities, he never connected art with any form of morals that the British public could understand. He sang. He sang supremely. And it wasn't enough for the British public. The consequence was that his fame spread out as far as under-graduates, and the tiny mob of under-graduates was the largest mob that ever worried itself about Swinburne. Their shouts showed the high-water mark of his popularity. When one of them wrote in a facetious ecstasy over "Dolores,"
But you came, O you procuratores And ran us all in!
that moment was the crown of Swinburne's career as a popular author. With its incomparable finger on the public pulse the Daily Mail, on the day when it announced Swinburne's death, devoted one of its placards to the performances of a lady and a dog on a wrecked liner, and another to the antics of a lunatic with a revolver. The Daily Mail knew what it was about. Do not imagine that I am trying to be sardonic about the English race and its organs. Not at all. The English race is all right, though ageing now. The English race has committed no crime in demanding from its poets something that Swinburne could not give. I am merely trying to make clear the exceeding strangeness of the apparition of a poet like Swinburne in a place like England.
Last year I was walking down Putney Hill, and I saw Swinburne for the first and last time. I could see nothing but his face and head. I did not notice those ridiculously short trousers that Putney people invariably mention when mentioning Swinburne. Never have I seen a man's life more clearly written in his eyes and mouth and forehead. The face of a man who had lived with fine, austere, passionate thoughts of his own! By the heavens, it was a noble sight. I have not seen a nobler. Now, I knew by hearsay every crease in his trousers, but nobody had told me that his face was a vision that would never fade from my memory. And nobody, I found afterwards by inquiry, had "noticed anything particular" about his face. I don't mind, either for Swinburne or for Putney. I reflect that if Putney ignored Swinburne, he ignored Putney. And I reflect that there is great stuff in Putney for a poet, and marvel that Swinburne never perceived it and used it. He must have been born English, and in the nineteenth century, by accident. He was misprized while living. That is nothing. What does annoy me is that critics who know better are pandering to the national hypocrisy after his death. In a dozen columns he has been sped into the unknown as "a great Victorian"! Miserable dishonesty! Nobody was ever less Victorian than Swinburne. And then when these critics have to skate over the "Poems and Ballads" episode—thin, cracking ice!—how they repeat delicately the word "sensuous," "sensuous." Out with it, tailorish and craven minds, and say "sensual"! For sensual the book is. It is fine in sensuality, and no talking will ever get you away from that. Villiers de l'Isle-Adam once wrote an essay on "Le Sadisme anglais," and supported it with a translation of a large part of "Anactoria." And even Paris was startled. A rare trick for a supreme genius to play on the country of his birth, enshrining in the topmost heights of its literature a lovely poem that cannot be discussed!... Well, Swinburne has got the better of us there. He has simply knocked to pieces the theory that great art is inseparable from the Ten Commandments. His greatest poem was written in honour of a poet whom any English Vigilance Society would have crucified. "Sane" critics will naturally observe, in their quiet manner, that "Anactoria" and similar feats were "so unnecessary." Would it were true!
[29 Apr. '09]
Some time ago a meeting (henceforward historic) took place between Mr. Longman, Mr. Macmillan, Mr. Reginald Smith, Mr. Methuen, and Mr. Hutchinson [All baronets or knights now, except Reginald Smith, who is dead] of the one part, and Mr. Bernard Shaw, Mr. Maurice Hewlett, and Mr. Anthony Hope of the other part. Mr. Longman was the host, and the encounter must have been touching. I would have given a complete set of the works of Mrs. Humphry Ward to have been invisibly present. The publishers had invited the authors (who represented the Authors' Society), with the object of dissuading them from allowing their books to be reprinted at the price of sevenpence. Naturally, the publishers, as always, were actuated by a pure desire for the welfare of authors. Messrs Shaw, Hewlett, and Hope have written an official account of their impressions of the great sevenpenny question, and it appears in the current number of the Author. It is amusing. The most amusing aspect of the whole affair is the mere fact that one solitary Scotch firm, Nelsons, have forced the mandarins, nay, the arch-mandarins, of the trade to cry out that the shoe is pinching. For the supreme convention of life on the mandarinic plane is that the shoe never pinches. The publishers made one very true statement to the authors, namely, that sevenpenny editions give the public the impression that 6s. is an excessive price for a novel. Well, it is. But is that a reason for abolishing the sevenpenny? The other statements of the publishers were chiefly absurd. For instance, this: "Any author allowing a novel to be sold at sevenpence will find the sales of his next book at 6s. suffering a considerable decrease." Well, it is notorious that if the sevenpenny publishers are publishing one particular book just now, that book is "Kipps." It is equally notorious that the sales of "Tono-Bungay" are, and continue to be, extremely satisfactory.
* * * * *
On the other hand, the remarks of the sevenpenny publishers themselves are not undiverting. I have heard from dozens of people in the trade that Messrs. Nelson could not possibly make the sevenpenny reprint pay. I have never believed the statement. But the Shaw and Co. report makes Messrs. Nelson give as one reason for not abandoning the sevenpenny enterprise the fact that "the machinery already in existence is too costly to be abandoned." Which involves the novel maxim that a loss may be too big to be cut! Were their amazing factory ten times as large as it actually is, Messrs. Nelson would have to put it to other uses in face of a regular loss on their sevenpennies. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the enterprise is, and will be, remunerative. The Shaw and Co. report is of the same view. Did the mandarins imagine that they were going to stop the sevenpenny, that anything could stop it? I suppose they did! More agreeably comic than the attitude and arguments of the publishers are the attitude and arguments of the booksellers. But the largest firms, Smith and Son and Wymans, "do not find that the sevenpenny has interfered with the 6s. novel." Be it noted that Smith and Son are now the largest buyers of 6s. novels in England.
* * * * *
In the Shaw and Co. report, in the arguments of publishers, in the arguments booksellers, not a word about the interests of the consumer! Yet the consumer will settle the affair ultimately. That the price of new novels will come down is absolutely certain. It will come down because it is ridiculous, and no mandarinic efforts can keep it up. In the process of readjustment many people will temporarily suffer, and a few people will be annihilated. But things are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be. Why, therefore, should we deceive ourselves? I quite expect to suffer myself. I shall not, however, complain of the cosmic movement. The auctorial report (which, by the way, is full of common sense) envisages immense changes in the book market. I agree. And I am sure that these changes will come about in the teeth of violent opposition from both publishers and booksellers. The book market is growing steadily. It is enormous compared to what used to be. And yet it is only in its infancy. The inhabitants of this country have scarcely even begun to buy books. Wait a few years and you will see!
[27 May '09]
The death of George Meredith removes, not the last of the Victorian novelists, but the first of the modern school. He was almost the first English novelist whose work reflected an intelligent interest in the art which he practised; and he was certainly the first since Scott who was really a literary man. Even Scott was more of an antiquary than a man of letters—apart from his work. Can one think of Dickens as a man of letters, as one who cared for books, as one whose notions on literature were worth twopence? And Thackeray's opinions on contemporary and preceding writers condemn him past hope of forgiveness. Thackeray was in Paris during the most productive years of French fiction, the sublime decade of Balzac, Stendhal, and Victor Hugo. And his "Paris Sketch-Book" proves that his attitude towards the marvels by which he was surrounded was the attitude of a clubman. These men wrote; they got through their writing as quickly as they could; and during the rest of the day they were clubmen, or hosts, or guests. Trollope, who dashed off his literary work with a watch in front of him before 8.30 of a morning, who hunted three days a week, dined out enormously, and gave his best hours to fighting Rowland Hill in the Post Office—Trollope merely carried to its logical conclusion the principle of his mightier rivals. What was the matter with all of them, after a holy fear of their publics, was simple ignorance. George Eliot was not ignorant. Her mind was more distinguished than the minds of the great three. But she was too preoccupied by moral questions to be a first-class creative artist. And she was a woman. A woman, at that epoch, dared not write an entirely honest novel! Nor a man either! Between Fielding and Meredith no entirely honest novel was written by anybody in England. The fear of the public, the lust of popularity, feminine prudery, sentimentalism, Victorian niceness—one or other of these things prevented honesty.
* * * * *
In "Richard Feverel," what a loosening of the bonds! What a renaissance! Nobody since Fielding would have ventured to write the Star and Garter chapter in "Richard Feverel." It was the announcer of a sort of dawn. But there are fearful faults in "Richard Feverel." The book is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of the excellent Charlotte M. Yonge. The large constructional lines of it are bad. The separation of Lucy and Richard is never explained, and cannot be explained. The whole business of Sir Julius is grotesque. And the conclusion is quite arbitrary. It is a weak book, full of episodic power and overloaded with wit. "Diana of the Crossways" is even worse. I am still awaiting from some ardent Meredithian an explanation of Diana's marriage that does not insult my intelligence. Nor is "One of our Conquerors" very good. I read it again recently, and was sad. In my view, "The Egoist" and "Rhoda Fleming" are the best of the novels, and I don't know that I prefer one to the other. The latter ought to have been called "Dahlia Fleming," and not "Rhoda." When one thinks of the rich colour, the variety, the breadth, the constant intellectual distinction, the sheer brilliant power of novels such as these, one perceives that a "great Victorian" could only have succeeded in an age when all the arts were at their lowest ebb in England, and the most middling of the middle-classes ruled with the Bible in one hand and the Riot Act in the other.
Meredith was an uncompromising Radical, and—what is singular—he remained so in his old age. He called Mr. Joseph Chamberlain's nose "adventurous" at a time when Mr. Joseph Chamberlain's nose had the ineffable majesty of the Queen of Spain's leg. And the Pall Mall haughtily rebuked him. A spectacle for history! He said aloud in a ballroom that Guy de Maupassant was the greatest novelist that ever lived. To think so was not strange; but to say it aloud! No wonder this temperament had to wait for recognition. Well, Meredith has never had proper recognition; and won't have yet. To be appreciated by a handful of writers, gushed over by a little crowd of thoughtful young women, and kept on a shelf uncut by ten thousand persons determined to be in the movement—that is not appreciation. He has not even been appreciated as much as Thomas Hardy, though he is a less fine novelist. I do not assert that he is a less fine writer. For his poems are as superior to the verses of Thomas Hardy as "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is superior to "The Egoist." (Never in English prose literature was such a seer of beauty as Thomas Hardy.) The volume of Meredith's verse is small, but there are things in it that one would like to have written. And it is all so fine, so acute, so alert, courageous, and immoderate.
* * * * *
A member of the firm which has the honour of publishing Meredith's novels was interviewed by the Daily Mail on the day after his death. The gentleman interviewed gave vent to the usual insolence about our own times. "He belonged," said the gentleman, "to a very different age from the modern writer—an age before the literary agent; and with Mr. Meredith the feeling of intimacy as between author and publisher—the feeling that gave to publishing as it was its charm—was always existent." Charm—yes, for the publisher. The secret history of the publishing of Meredith's earlier books (long before Constables had ever dreamed of publishing him) is more than curious. I have heard some details of it. My only wonder is that human ingenuity did not invent literary agents forty years ago. Then the person interviewed went grandly on: "In his manner of writing the great novelist was very different from the modern fashion. He wrote with such care that judged by modern standards he would be considered a trifle slow." Tut-tut! It may interest the gentleman interviewed to learn that no modern writer would dare to produce work at the rate at which Scott, Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray produced it when their prices were at their highest. The rate of production has most decidedly declined, and upon the whole novels are written with more care now than ever they were. I should doubt if any novel was written at greater speed than the greatest realistic novel in the world, Richardson's "Clarissa," which is eight or ten times the length of an average novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward. "Mademoiselle de Maupin" was done in six weeks. Scott's careless dash is notorious. And both Dickens and Thackeray were in such a hurry that they would often begin to print before they had finished writing. Publishers who pride themselves on the old charming personal relations with great authors ought not to be so ignorant of literary history as the gentleman who unpacked his heart to a sympathetic Daily Mail.
ST. JOHN HANKIN
[1 July '09]
I was discussing last week the insufficiency of the supply of intelligent playwrights for the presumable demand of the two new repertory theatres; and, almost as I spoke, St. John Hankin drowned himself. The loss is sensible. I do not consider St. John Hankin to have been a great dramatist; I should scarcely care to say that he was a distinguished dramatist, though, of course, the least of his works is infinitely more important in the development of the English theatre than the biggest of the creaking contrivances for which Sir Arthur Wing Pinero has recently received honour from a grateful and cultured Government. But he was a curious, honest, and original dramatist, with a considerable equipment of wit and of skill. The unconsciously grotesque condescension which he received in the criticisms of Mr. William Archer, and the mere insolence which he had to tolerate in the criticisms of Mr. A.B. Walkley, were demonstrations of the fact that he was a genuine writer. What he lacked was creative energy. He could interest but he could not powerfully grip you. His most precious quality—particularly precious in England—was his calm intellectual curiosity, his perfect absence of fear at the logical consequences of an argument. He would follow an argument anywhere. He was not one, of those wretched poltroons who say: "But if I admit x to be true, I am doing away with the incentive to righteousness. Therefore I shall not admit x to be true." There are thousands of these highly educated poltroons between St. Stephen's, Westminster, and Aberystwith University, and St. John Hankin was their foe.
* * * * *
The last time I conversed with him was at the dress rehearsal of a comedy. Between the sloppy sounds of charwomen washing the floor of the pit and the feverish cries of photographers taking photographs on the stage, we discussed the plays of Tchehkoff and other things. He was one of the few men in England who had ever heard of Tchehkoff's plays. When I asked him in what edition he had obtained them, he replied that he had read them in manuscript. I have little doubt that one day these plays will be performed in England. St. John Hankin was an exceedingly good talker, rather elaborate in the construction of his phrases, and occasionally dandiacal in his choice of words. One does not arrive at his skill in conversation without taking thought, and he must have devoted a lot of thought to the art of talking. Hence he talked self-consciously, fully aware all the time that talking was an art and himself an artist. Beneath the somewhat finicking manner there was visible the intelligence that cared for neither conventions nor traditions, nor for possible inconvenient results, but solely for intellectual honesty amid conditions of intellectual freedom.
[8 July '09]
The Rev. Dr. W.F. Barry, himself a novelist, has set about to belabour novelists, and to enliven the end of a dull season, in a highly explosive article concerning "the plague of unclean books, and especially of dangerous fiction." He says: "I never leave my house to journey in any direction, but I am forced to see, and solicited to buy, works flamingly advertised of which the gospel is adultery and the apocalypse the right of suicide." (No! I am not parodying Dr. Barry. I am quoting from his article, which may be read in the Bookman. It ought to have appeared in Punch.) One naturally asks oneself: "What is the geographical situation of this house of Dr. Barry's, hemmed in by flaming and immoral advertisements and by soliciting sellers of naughtiness?" Dr. Barry probably expects to be taken seriously. But he will never be taken seriously until he descends from purple generalities to the particular naming of names. If he has the courage of his opinions, if he genuinely is concerned for the future of this unfortunate island, he might name a dozen or so of the "myriad volumes which deride self-control, scoff at the God-like in man, deny the judgment, and by most potent illustration declare that death ends all." For myself, I am unacquainted with them, and nobody has ever solicited me to buy them. At least he might state where one is solicited to buy these shockers. I would go thither at once, just to see. In the course of his article, Dr. Barry lets slip a phrase about "half-empty churches." Of course, these half-empty churches must be laid on the back of somebody, and the novelist's back is always convenient. Hence, no doubt, the article. Dr. Barry seeks for information. He asks: "Will Christian fathers and mothers go on tolerating...," etc. etc. I can oblige him. The answer is, "Yes. They will."
[16 Sep. '09]
In every number up to August, I think, the summary of the English Review began with "Modern Poetry," a proper and necessary formal recognition of the supremacy of verse. But in the current issue "Modern Poetry" is put after a "study" of the Chancellor of the Exchequer by Max Beerbohm. A trifling change! editorially speaking, perhaps an unavoidable change! And yet it is one of these nothings which are noticed by those who notice such nothings. Among the poets, some of them fairly new discoveries, whom the English Review has printed is "J. Marjoram." I do not know what individuality the name of J. Marjoram conceals, but it is certainly a pseudonym. Some time ago J. Marjoram published a volume of verse entitled "Repose" (Alston Rivers), and now Duckworth has published his "New Poems." The volume is agreeable and provocative. It contains a poem called "Afternoon Tea," which readers of the English Review will remember. I do not particularly care for "Afternoon Tea." I find the contrast between the outcry of a deep passion and the chatter of the tea merely melodramatic, instead of impressive. And I object to the idiom in which the passion is expressed. For example:
To prove I mean love, I'd burn in Hell.
You touch the cup With one slim finger.... I'll drink it up, Though it be blood.
We are all quite certain that the lover would not willingly burn in Hell to prove his love, and that if he drank blood he would be sick. The idiom is outworn. That J. Marjoram should employ it is a sign, among others, that he has not yet quite got over the "devout lover" stage in his mood towards women. He makes a pin say: "She dropped me, pity my despair!" which is in the worst tradition of Westminster Gazette "Occ. Verse." He is somewhat too much occupied with this attitudinization before women or the memory of women. It has about as much to do with the reality of sexual companionship as the Lord Mayor's procession has to do with the municipal life of Greater London. Still, J. Marjoram is a genuine poet. In "Fantasy of the Sick Bed," the principal poem in the book, there are some really beautiful passages. I would say to him, and I would say to all young poets, because I feel it deeply: Do not be afraid of your raw material, especially in the relations between men and women. J. Marjoram well and epigrammatically writes:
Yet who despiseth Love As little and incomplete Learns by losing Love How it was sweet!
True. But, when applied to love with a capital L, and to dropped pins despairing, a little sane realistic disdain will not be amiss, particularly in this isle. I want to see the rise of a new school of love poetry in England. And I believe I shall see it.
[23 Sep. '09]
I am reminded of Anthony Trollope and a recent article on him, in the Times, which was somewhat below the high level of the Times literary criticism. Said the Times: "Anthony Trollope died in the December of 1882, and in the following year a fatal, perhaps an irreparable, blow to his reputation was struck by the publication of his autobiography." The conceit of a blow which in addition to being fatal is perhaps also irreparable is diverting. But that is not my point. What the Times objects to in the Autobiography is the revelation of the clock-work methods by which Trollope wrote his novels. It appears that this horrid secret ought to have been for ever concealed. "Fatal admission!" exclaims the Times. Fatal fiddlesticks! Trollope said much more than the Times quotes. He confessed that he wrote with a watch in front of him, and obliged himself to produce 250 words every quarter of an hour. And what then? How can the confession affect his reputation? His reputation rests on the value of his novels, and not in the least on the manner in which he chose to write them. And his reputation is secure. Moreover, there is no reason why great literature should not be produced to time, with a watch on the desk. Persons who chatter about the necessity of awaiting inspirational hypersthenia don't know what the business of being an artist is. They have only read about it sentimentally. The whole argument is preposterous, and withal extraordinarily Victorian. And even assuming that the truth would deal a fatal blow, etc., is that a reason for hiding it? Another strange sentence is this: "The wonder is, not that Trollope's novels are 'readable,' but that, being readable, they are yet so closely packed with that true realism without which any picture of life is lifeless." (My italics.) I ask myself what quality, in the opinion of the Times writer, chiefly makes for readableness.
CHESTERTON AND LUCAS
[7 Oct. '09]
Two books of essays on the same day from the same firm, "One Day and Another," by E.V. Lucas, and "Tremendous Trifles," by G.K. Chesterton! Messrs. Methuen put the volumes together and advertised them as being "uniform in size and appearance." I do not know why. They are uniform neither in size nor in appearance; but only in price, costing a crown apiece. "Tremendous Trifles" has given me a wholesome shock. Its contents are all reprinted from the Daily News. In some ways they are sheer and rank journalism; they are often almost Harmsworthian in their unscrupulous simplifying of the facts of a case, in their crude determination to emphasize one fact at the expense of every other fact. Thus: "No one can understand Paris and its history who does not understand that its fierceness is the balance and justification of its frivolity." So there you are! If you don't accept that you are damned; the Chesterton guillotine has clicked on you. Perhaps I have lived in Paris more years than Mr. Chesterton has lived in it months, but it has not yet happened to me to understand that its fierceness is the balance and justification of its frivolity. Hence I am undone; I no longer exist! Again, of Brussels: "It has none of the things which make good Frenchmen love Paris; it has only the things which make unspeakable Englishmen love it." There are a hundred things in Brussels that I love, and I find Brussels a very agreeable city. Hence I am an unspeakable Englishman. Mr. Chesterton's book is blotched with this particular form of curt arrogance as with a skin complaint. Happily it is only a skin complaint. More serious than a skin complaint is Mr. Chesterton's religious orthodoxy, which crops up at intervals and colours the book. I merely voice the opinion of the intelligent minority (or majority) of Mr. Chesterton's readers when I say that his championship of Christian dogma sticks in my throat. In my opinion, at this time of day it is absolutely impossible for a young man with a first-class intellectual apparatus to accept any form of dogma, and I am therefore forced to the conclusion that Mr. Chesterton has not got a first-class intellectual apparatus. (With an older man, whose central ideas were definitely formed at an earlier epoch, the case might be different.) I will go further and say that it is impossible, in one's private thoughts, to think of the accepter of dogma as an intellectual equal. Not all Mr. Chesterton's immense cleverness and charm will ever erase from the minds of his best readers this impression—caused by his mistimed religious dogmatism—that there is something seriously deficient in the very basis of his mind. And what his cleverness and charm cannot do his arrogance and his effrontery assuredly will not do. And yet I said that this book gave me a wholesome shock. Far from deteriorating, Mr. Chesterton is improving. In spite of the awful tediousness of his mannerism of antithetical epigram, he does occasionally write finer epigrams than ever. His imagination is stronger, his fancy more delicate, and his sense of beauty widened. There are things in this book that really are very excellent indeed; things that, if they die, will die hard. For example, the essay: "In Topsy Turvy Land." It is a book which, in the main, strongly makes for righteousness. Its minor defects are scandalous, in a literary sense; its central defect passes the comprehension; the book is journalism, it is anything you like. But I can tell you that it is literature, after all.
* * * * *
If you desire a book entirely free from the exasperating faults of Mr. Chesterton's you will turn to Mr. Lucas's. But Mr. Lucas, too, is a highly mysterious man. On the surface he might be mistaken for a mere cricket enthusiast. Dig down, and you will come, with not too much difficulty, to the simple man of letters. Dig further, and, with somewhat more difficulty, you will come to an agreeably ironic critic of human foibles. Try to dig still further, and you will probably encounter rock. Only here and there in his two novels does Mr. Lucas allow us to glimpse a certain powerful and sardonic harshness in him, indicative of a mind that has seen the world and irrevocably judged it in most of its manifestations. I could believe that Mr. Lucas is an ardent politician, who, however, would not deign to mention his passionately held views save with a pencil on a ballot-paper—if then! It could not have been without intention that he put first in this new book an essay describing the manufacture of a professional criminal. Most of the other essays are exceedingly light in texture. They leave no loophole for criticism, for their accomplishment is always at least as high as their ambition. They are serenely well done. Immanent in the book is the calm assurance of a man perfectly aware that it will be a passing hard task to get change out of him! And even when some one does get change out of him, honour is always saved. In describing a certain over of his own bowling, Mr. Lucas says: "I was conscious of a twinge as I saw his swift glance round the field. He then hit my first ball clean out of it; from my second he made two; from my third another two; the fourth and fifth wanted playing; and the sixth he hit over my head among some distant haymakers." You see, the fourth and fifth wanted playing.
OFFICIAL RECOGNITION OF POETRY
[14 Oct. '09]
I did not go to Paris to witness the fetes in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Victor Hugo's "La Legende des Siecles," but I happened to be in Paris while they were afoot. I might have seen one of Hugo's dramas at the Theatre Francais, but I avoided this experience, my admiration for Hugo being tempered after the manner of M. Andre Gide's. M. Gide, asked with a number of other authors to say who was still the greatest modern French poet, replied: "Victor Hugo—alas!" So I chose Brieux instead of Hugo, and saw "La Robe Rouge" at the Francais. Brieux is now not only an Academician, but one of the stars of the Francais. A bad sign! A bad play, studded with good things, like all Brieux's plays. (The importance attached to Brieux by certain of the elect in England is absurd. Bernard Shaw could simply eat him up—for he belongs to the vegetable kingdom.) A thoroughly bad performance, studded with fine acting! A great popular success! Whenever I go to the Francais I tremble at the prospect of a national theatre in England. The Francais is hopeless—corrupt, feeble, tedious, reactionary, fraudulent, and the laughing-stock of artists. However, we have not got a national theatre yet.
* * * * *
Immediately after its unveiling I gazed in the garden of the Palais Royal at Rodin's statue of Victor Hugo. I thought it rather fine, shadowed on the north and on the south by two famous serpentine trees. Hugo, in a state of nudity, reclines meditating on a pile of rocks. The likeness is good, but you would not guess from the statue that for many years Hugo travelled daily on the top of the Clichy-Odeon omnibus and was never recognized by the public. Heaven knows what he is meditating about! Perhaps about that gushing biography of himself which apparently he penned with his own hand and published under another name! For he was a weird admixture of qualities—like most of us. I could not help meditating, myself, upon the really extraordinary differences between France and England. Imagine a nude statue of Tennyson in St. James's Park! You cannot! But, assuming that some creative wit had contrived to get a nude statue of Tennyson into St. James's Park, imagine the enormous shindy that would occur, the horror-stricken Press of London, the deep pain and resentment of a mighty race! And can you conceive London officially devoting a week to the recognition of the fact that fifty years had elapsed since the publication of a work of poetic genius! Yet I think we know quite as much about poetry in England as they do in France. Still less conceivable is the participation of an English Government in such an anniversary. In Paris last Thursday a French Minister stood in front of the Hugo statue and thus began: "The Government of the Republic could not allow the fiftieth anniversary of the 'Legend of the Centuries' to be celebrated without associating itself with the events." My fancy views Mr. Herbert John Gladstone—yes, him!—standing discreetly in front of an indiscreet marble Wordsworth and asserting that the British Government had no intention of being left out of the national rejoicings about the immortality of "The Prelude"! A spectacle that surely Americans would pay to see! On Sunday, at the Francais, Hugo was being declaimed from one o'clock in the afternoon till midnight, with only an hour's interval. And it rained violently nearly all the time.
ARTISTS AND CRITICS
[21 Oct. '09]
There is a one-sided feud between artists and critics. When a number of artists are gathered together you will soon in the conversation come upon signs of that feud. I admit that the general attitude of artists to critics is unfair. They expect from critics an imaginative comprehension which in the nature of the case only a creative artist can possess. On the other hand, a creative artist cannot do the work of a critic because he has neither the time nor the inclination to master the necessary critical apparatus. Hence critical work seldom or never satisfies the artist, and the artist's ideal of what critical work ought to be is an impossible dream. I find confirmation of my view in other arts than my own. The critical work of Mr. Bernhard Berenson, for instance, seems to me wonderful and satisfying. But when I mention Mr. Berenson to a painter I invariably discover that that painter's secret attitude towards Mr. Berenson is—well, aristocratic. The finest, and the only first-rate, criticism is produced when, by an exceptional accident, a creative artist of balanced and powerful temperament is moved to deal exhaustively with a subject. Among standard critical works the one that has most impressed me is Lessing's "Laocoon"—at any rate the literary parts of it. Here (I have joyously said to myself) is somebody who knows what he is talking about! Here is some one who has been there.
[4 Nov. '09]
After a long period of abstention from Rudyard Kipling, I have just read "Actions and Reactions." It has induced gloom in me; yet a modified gloom. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since "Plain Tales from the Hills" delighted first Anglo-Indian, and then English society. There was nothing of permanent value in that book, and in my extremest youth I never imagined otherwise. But "The Story of the Gadsbys" impressed me. So did "Barrack-room Ballads." So did pieces of "Soldiers Three." So did "Life's Handicap" and "Many Inventions." So did "The Jungle Book," despite its wild natural history. And I remember my eagerness for the publication of "The Seven Seas." I remember going early in the morning to Denny's bookshop to buy it. I remember the crimson piles of it in every bookshop in London. And I remember that I perused it, gulped it down, with deep joy. And I remember the personal anxiety which I felt when Kipling lay very dangerously ill in New York. For a fortnight, then, Kipling's temperature was the most important news of the day. I remember giving a party with a programme of music, in that fortnight, and I began the proceedings by reading aloud the programme, and at the end of the programme instead of "God Save the Queen," I read, "God Save Kipling," and everybody cheered. "Stalky and Co." cooled me, and "Kim" chilled me. At intervals, since, Kipling's astounding political manifestations, chiefly in verse, have shocked and angered me. As time has elapsed it has become more and more clear that his output was sharply divided into two parts by his visit to New York, and that the second half is inferior in quantity, in quality, in everything, to the first. It has been too plain now for years that he is against progress, that he is the shrill champion of things that are rightly doomed, that his vogue among the hordes of the respectable was due to political reasons, and that he retains his authority over the said hordes because he is the bard of their prejudices and of their clayey ideals. A democrat of ten times Kipling's gift and power could never have charmed and held the governing classes as Kipling has done. Nevertheless, I for one cannot, except in anger, go back on a genuine admiration. I cannot forget a benefit. If in quick resentment I have ever written of Kipling with less than the respect which is eternally due to an artist who has once excited in the heart a generous and beautiful emotion, and has remained honest, I regret it. And this is to be said: at his worst Kipling is an honest and painstaking artist. No work of his but has obviously been lingered over with a craftsman's devotion! He has never spoken when he had nothing to say—though probably no artist was ever more seductively tempted by publishers and editors to do so. And he has done more than shun notoriety—Miss Marie Corelli does that—he has succeeded in avoiding it.
* * * * *
The first story, and the best, in "Actions and Reactions" is entitled "An Habitation Enforced," and it displays the amused but genuine awe of a couple of decent rich Americans confronted by the saecular wonders of the English land system. It depends for its sharp point on a terrific coincidence, as do many of Kipling's tales, for instance, "The Man Who Was"—the mere chance that these Americans should tumble upon the very ground and estate that had belonged to the English ancestors of one of them. It is written in a curiously tortured idiom, largely borrowed from the Bible, and all the characters are continually given to verbal smartness or peculiarity of one kind or another. The characters are not individualized. Each is a type, smoothed out by sentimental handling into something meant to be sympathetic. Moreover, the real difficulties of the narrative are consistently, though I believe unconsciously, shirked. The result, if speciously pretty, is not a bit convincing. But the gravest, and the entirely fatal fault, is the painting of the English land system. To read this story one could never guess that the English land system is not absolutely ideal, that tenants and hereditary owners do not live always in a delightful patriarchal relation, content. There are no shadows whatever. The English land system is perfect, and no accusation could possibly be breathed against it. And the worst is that for Kipling the English land system probably is perfect. He is incapable of perceiving that it can be otherwise. He would not desire it to be otherwise. His sentimentalization of it is gross—there is no other word—and at bottom the story is as wildly untrue to life as the most arrant Sunday-school prize ever published by the Religious Tract Society. Let it be admitted that the romantic, fine side of the English land system is rendered with distinction and effectiveness; and that the puzzled, unwilling admiration of the Americans is well done, though less well than in a somewhat similar earlier story, "An Error in the Fourth Dimension."
* * * * *
An example of another familiar aspect of Kipling is "With the Night Mail." This is a story of 2000 A.D., and describes the crossing of the Atlantic by the aerial mail. It is a glittering essay in the sham-technical; and real imagination, together with a tremendous play of fancy, is shown in the invention of illustrative detail. But the whole effort is centred on the mechanics of the affair. Human evolution has stood stock-still save in the department of engineering. The men are exactly the same semi-divine civil service men that sit equal with British military and naval officers on the highest throne in the kingdom of Kipling's esteem. Nothing interests him but the mechanics and the bureaucratic organization and the esprit de corps. Nor does he conceive that the current psychology of ruling and managing the earth will ever be modified. His simplicity, his naivete, his enthusiasms, his prejudices, his blindness, and his vanities are those of Stalky. And, after all, even the effect he aims at is not got. It is nearly got, but never quite. There is a tireless effort, but the effort is too plain and fatigues the reader, forcing him to share it. A thin powder of dullness lies everywhere.
* * * * *
When I had read these stories, I took out "Life's Handicap," and tasted again the flavour of "On Greenhow Hill," which I have always considered to be among the very best of Kipling's stories. It would be too much to say that I liked it as well as ever. I did not. Time has staled it. The author's constitutional sentimentality has corroded it in parts. But it is still a very impressive and a fundamentally true thing. It was done in the rich flush of power, long before its creator had even suspected his hidden weaknesses, long before his implacable limitations had begun to compel him to imitate himself. It was done in the days when he could throw off exquisite jewels like this, to deck the tale:
To Love's low voice she lent a careless ear; Her band within his rosy fingers lay, A chilling weight. She would, not turn or hear; But with averted, face went on her way. But when pale Death, all featureless and grim, Lifted his bony hand, and beckoning Held out his cypress-wreath, she followed him, And Love was left forlorn and wondering, That she who for his bidding would not stay, At Death's first whisper rose and went away.
CENSORSHIP BY THE LIBRARIES
[23 Dec '09]
The immediate origin of the new attempt by the libraries to exercise a censorship over books, and particularly over novels, is quite accidental and silly. A woman socially prominent in the governing classes of this realm has a daughter. The daughter obtained and read a certain book from the circulating library. (Naturally the family is one of those that are too rich to buy books; it can only hire.) The mother chanced to see the book, and considered it to be highly improper. (I have not read the book, but I should say that it is probably not improper at all; merely a trivial, foolish book.) The woman went direct to an extremely exalted member of the Cabinet, being a friend of his; and she kicked up a tremendous storm and dust. The result was that "certain machinery" was set in motion, and "certain representations" were made to the libraries; indeed, the libraries were given to understand that unless they did something themselves "certain steps" would be taken. It was all very vague and impressive, and it brought recent agitations to a head. Hence the manifesto of the libraries, in which they announce that all books must be submitted in advance to a committee of hiring experts, and that the submitted books will be divided into three classes. The first class will be absolutely banned; the circulation of the second will be prevented so far as it can be prevented without the ban absolute; and the circulation of the third will be permitted without restrictions.
* * * * *
Of course, that even the suggestion of a censorship should spring from such a personal and trifling cause is very scandalous. But I am fairly sure that it might happen under any Government and under any form of Government. All Governments must consist of individual members, and all individual members have friends. Most of them are acquainted with women, and with absurd women, who will utilize the acquaintanceship with all their might for their own personal ends. And exceedingly few members of any Government whatsoever would have the courage to tell a well-dressed and arrogant woman to go to the devil, even when that answer happened to be the sole correct answer to an impertinence. Wellington merely damned the portly darlings, but then Wellington, though preposterous as a politician, was a great man.
* * * * *
The menacing letter from the Libraries was received by the Publishers on the very day of their Council meeting. This may or may not have been accidental, but at any rate it put the Publishers at a disadvantage. The Council meetings of the Publishers' Association, being dominated by knights and other mandarins, are apt to be formal and majestic in character. You can't blurt out whatever comes into your head at a Council meeting of the Publishers' Association. And nearly everybody is afraid of everybody else. No one had had time to think the matter over, much less to decide whether surrender or defiance would pay best or look best. Consequently the reply sent to the Libraries was a masterpiece of futility. The mildly surprising thing is that, in the Council itself, there was a strong pro-Library party. Among this party were Messrs. Hutchinson and Mr. Heinemann. Messrs. Hutchinson, it is well known, have consistently for many years tried to publish only novels for "family reading." It is an ambition, like another. And one may admit that Messrs. Hutchinson have fairly well succeeded in it. Mr. Heinemann issues as much really high-class literature as any publisher in London, but if his policy has had a "family and young lady" tendency, that tendency has escaped me. He has published books (some of them admirable works, and some not) which a committee of hiring experts would have rejected with unanimous enthusiasm. It is needless to particularize. Why Mr. Heinemann should have supported the Libraries in the private deliberations of the Publishers I cannot imagine. But that is the fault of my imagination. I have an immense confidence in Mr. Heinemann's business acumen and instinct for self-preservation.
* * * * *
The Publishers, if they chose, could kill the censorship movement at once by politely declining to submit their books to the censorship. If only the three big fiction firms concerted to do this, the Libraries would be compelled to withdraw their project. But the Publishers will not do this; not even three of them will do it. The only argument against a censorship is that it is extremely harmful to original literature of permanent value; and such an argument does not make any very powerful appeal to publishers. What most publishers want is to earn as much money as possible with as little fuss as possible. Again, the Authors' Society might kill the censorship conspiracy by declining to allow its members to sign any agreement with publishers which did not contain a clause forbidding the publisher to submit the book to the committee of hiring experts. A dozen leading novelists could command the situation. But the Authors' Society will do nothing effective. The official reply of the Authors' Society was as feeble as that of the Publishers. I repeat that the only argument against a censorship is that it is extremely harmful to original literature of permanent value; such an argument does not make any very powerful appeal to authors. What most authors want is to earn as much money as possible with as little fuss as possible. Besides, the great money-makers among authors—the authors of weight with publishers and libraries—have nothing to fear from any censorship. They censor themselves. They take the most particular care not to write anything original, courageous, or true, because these qualities alienate more subscribers than they please. I am not a pessimist nor a cynic, but I enjoy contemplating the real facts of a case.
All the forces would seem to be in favour of the establishment of a censorship. (And by a censorship I mean such a censorship as would judge books by a code which, if it was applied to them, would excommunicate the Bible, Shakespeare, Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Swift, Shelley, Rossetti, Meredith, Hardy, and George Moore. "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel" would never, as a new work, pass a library censorship. Nor would "Jude the Obscure," nor half a dozen of Hardy's other books; nor would most of George Moore.) Nevertheless I am not very much perturbed. There are three tremendous forces against the establishment of a genuine censorship, and I think that they will triumph. The first is that mysterious nullifying force by which such movements usually do fizzle out. The second force against it lies in the fact that the movement is not genuinely based on public opinion. And the third is that there is a great deal of money to be made out of merely silly mawkish books which a genuine censorship would ban with serious, original work. For such books a strong demand exists among people otherwise strictly respectable, far stronger than the feeling against such books. The demand will have its way. A few serious and obstinate authors will perhaps suffer for a while. But then we often do suffer. We don't seem to mind. No one could guess, for instance, from the sweet Christian kindliness of my general tone towards Mr. Jesse Boot's library that Mr. Jesse Boot had been guilty of banning some of my work which I love most. But it is so. I suppose we don't mind, because in the end, dead or alive, we come out on top.
* * * * *
[30 Dec. '09]
I imagined that I had said the last word on this subject, and hence I intended to say no more. But it appears that I was mistaken. It appears, from a somewhat truculent letter which I have received from a correspondent, that I have not yet even touched the fringe of the subject. Parts of this correspondent's letter are fairly printable. He says: "You look at the matter from quite the wrong point of view. There is only one point of view, and that is the subscribers'. The Libraries don't exist for authors, but for us (he is a subscriber to Mudie's). We pay, and the Libraries are for our convenience. They are not for the furtherance of English literature, or whatever you call it. What I say is, if I order a book from a Library I ought to be able to get it, unless it has been confiscated by the police. I didn't pay my subscription in order to have my choice of books limited to such books as some frock-coated personage in Oxford Street thought good for me. I've spent about forty years in learning to know what I like in literature, and I don't want anybody to teach me. I'm not a young girl, I'm a middle-aged man; but I don't see why I should be handicapped by that. And if I am to be handicapped I'm going to chuck Mudie's. I've already written them a very rude letter about Mr. de Morgan's "It Never Can Happen Again." I wanted that book. They told me they didn't supply it. And when I made a row they wrote me a soothing letter nearly as long as the Epistle to the Ephesians explaining why they didn't supply it. Something about two volumes and half a sovereign.... I don't know, and I don't care. I don't care whether a book's in one volume or in a hundred volumes. If I want it, and if I've paid for the right to have it, I've got to have it, or I've got to have my money back. They mumbled something in their letter about having received many complaints from other subscribers about novels being in two volumes. But what do I care about other subscribers?"