Books and Persons - Being Comments on a Past Epoch 1908-1911
by Arnold Bennett
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Books and Persons


LONDON Chatto & Windus 1917












(In Collaboration with Eden Phillpotts)


Books and Persons


LONDON Chatto & Windus 1917

First published June 1917 Second Impression Aug. 1917




The contents of this book have been chosen from a series of weekly articles which enlivened the New Age during the years 1908, 1909, 1910, and 1911, under the pseudonym "Jacob Tonson." The man responsible for the republication is the dedicatee, who, having mysteriously demanded from me back numbers of the New Age, sat in my house one Sunday afternoon and in four hours read through the entire series. He then announced that he had made a judicious selection, and that the selection must positively be issued in volume form. Mr. Frank Swinnerton approved the selection and added to it slightly. In my turn I suggested a few more additions. The total amounts to one-third of the original matter. Beyond correcting misprints, softening the crudity of several epithets, and censoring lines here and there which might give offence without helping the sacred cause, I have not altered the articles. They appear as they were journalistically written in Paris, London, Switzerland, and the Forest of Fontainebleau. In particular I have left the critical judgments alone, for the good reason that I stand by nearly all of them, though perhaps with a less challenging vivacity, to this day.


February 1917













[4 Apr. '08]

An important book on an important town is to be issued by Messrs. Methuen. The town is London, and the author Mr. Wilfred Whitten, known to journalism as John o' London. Considering that he comes from Newcastle-on-Tyne (or thereabouts), his pseudonym seems to stretch a point. However, Mr. Whitten is now acknowledged as one of the foremost experts in London topography. He is not an archaeologist, he is a humanist—in a good dry sense; not the University sense, nor the silly sense. The word "human" is a dangerous word; I am rather inclined to handle it with antiseptic precautions. When a critic who has risen high enough to be allowed to sign his reviews in a daily paper calls a new book "a great human novel," you may be absolutely sure that the said novel consists chiefly of ridiculous twaddle. Mr. Whitten is not a humanist in that sense. He has no sentimentality, and a very great deal of both wit and humour.

* * * * *

He is also a critic admirably sane. Not long ago he gave a highly diverting exhibition of sanity in a short, shattering pronouncement upon the works of Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson and the school which has acquired celebrity by holding the mirror up to its own nature. The wonder was that Mr. Benson did not, following his precedent, write to the papers to say that Mr. Whitten was no gentleman. In the days before the Academy blended the characteristics of a comic paper with those of a journal of dogmatic theology, before it took to disowning its own reviewers, Mr. Whitten was the solid foundation of that paper's staff. He furnished the substance, which was embroidered by the dark grace of the personality of Mr. Lewis Hind, whose new volume of divagations is, by the way, just out.

* * * * *

But my main object in referring to Mr. Whitten is to state formally, and with a due sense of responsibility, that he is one of the finest prose writers now writing in English. His name is on the title-pages of several books, but no book of his will yet bear out my statement. The proof of it lies in weekly papers. No living Englishman can do "the grand manner"—combining majestic dignity with a genuine lyrical inspiration—better than Mr. Whitten. These are proud words of mine, but I am not going to disguise my conviction that I know what I am talking about. Some day some publisher will wake up out of the coma in which publishers exist, and publish in volume form—probably with coloured pictures as jam for children—Mr. Whitten's descriptions of English towns. Then I shall be justified. I might have waited till that august moment. But I want to be beforehand with Dr. Robertson Nicoll. I see that Dr. Nicoll has just added to his list of patents by inventing Leonard Merrick, whom I used to admire in print long before Dr. Nicoll had ever heard that Mr. J.M. Barrie regarded Leonard Merrick as the foremost English novelist. Dr. Nicoll has already got Mr. Whitten on to the reviewing staff of the Bookman. But I am determined that he shall not invent Mr. Whitten's prose style. I am the inventor of that.

[2 May '08]

A few weeks ago I claimed to be the discoverer of Mr. Wilfred Whitten as a first-class prose writer. I relinquish the claim, with apologies. Messrs. Methuen have staggered me by sending me Mrs. Laurence Binyon's "Nineteenth Century Prose," in which anthology is an example of Mr. Whitten's prose. Though staggered, I was delighted. I should very much like to know how Mrs. Binyon encountered the prose of Mr. Whitten. Did she hunt through the files of newspapers for what she might find therein, and was she thus rewarded? Or did some tremendous and omniscient expert give her the tip? I disagree with about 85 per cent. of the obiter dicta of her preface, but her anthology is certainly a most agreeable compilation. It shows, like sundry other recent anthologies, the strong liberating influence of Mr. E.V. Lucas, whose "Open Road" really amounted to a renascence of the craft.

And here is the tail-end of the extract which Mrs. Binyon has perfectly chosen from the essays of Mr. Whitten:

"...The moon pushing her way upwards through the vapours, and the scent of the beans and kitchen stuff from the allotments, and the gleaming rails below, spoke of the resumption of daily burdens. But let us drop that jargon. Why call that a burden which can never be lifted? This calm necessity that dwells with the matured man to get back to the matter in hand, and dree his weird whatever befall, is a badge, not a burden. It is the stimulus of sound natures; and as the weight of his wife's arm makes a man's body proud, so the sense of his usefulness to the world does but warm and indurate his soul. It is something when a man comes to this mind, and with all his capacity to err, is abreast of life at last. He shall not regret the infrequency of his inspirations, for he will know that the day of his strength has set in. And if, for poesy, some grave Virgilian line should pause on his memory, or some tongue of Hebrew fire leap from the ashes of his godly youth, it will be enough. But if cold duck await—why, then, to supper!"


[9 May '08]

In the Edinburgh Review there is a disquisition on "Ugliness in Fiction." Probably the author of it has read "Liza of Lambeth," and said Faugh! The article, peculiarly inept, is one of those outpourings which every generation of artists has to suffer with what tranquillity it can. According to the Reviewer, ugliness is specially rife "just now." It is always "just now." It was "just now" when George Eliot wrote "Adam Bede," when George Moore wrote "A Mummer's Wife," when Thomas Hardy wrote "Jude the Obscure." As sure as ever a novelist endeavours to paint a complete picture of life in this honest, hypocritical country of bad restaurants and good women; as sure as ever he hints that all is not for the best in the best of all possible islands, some witling is bound to come forward and point out with wise finger that life is not all black. I once resided near a young noodle of a Methodist pastor who had the pious habit of reading novels aloud to his father and mother. He began to read one of mine to them, but half-way through decided that something of Charlotte M. Yonge would be less unsuitable for the parental ear. He then called and lectured me. Among other aphorisms of his which I have treasured up was this: "Life, my dear friend, is like an April day—sunshine and shadow chasing each other over the plain." That he is not dead is a great tribute to my singular self-control. I suspect him to be the Edinburgh Reviewer. At any rate, the article moves on the plane of his plain.

* * * * *

The Reviewer has the strange effrontery to select Mr. Joseph Conrad's "Secret Agent" as an example of modern ugliness in fiction: a novel that is simply steeped in the finest beauty from end to end. I do not suppose that the Edinburgh Review has any moulding influence upon the evolution of the art of fiction in this country. But such nonsense may, after all, do harm by confusing the minds of people who really are anxious to encourage what is best, strongest, and most sane. The Reviewer in this instance, for example, classes, as serious, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, and John Galsworthy, who are genuine creative forces, with mere dignified unimportant sentimentalizers like Mr. W.B. Maxwell. While he was on the business of sifting the serious from the unserious I wonder he didn't include the authors of "Three Weeks" and "The Heart of a Child" among the serious! Perhaps because the latter wrote "Pigs in Clover" and the former was condemned by the booksellers! Nobody could have a lower opinion of "Three Weeks" than I have. But I have never been able to understand why the poor little feeble story was singled out as an awful example of female licentiousness, and condemned by a hundred newspapers that had not the courage to name it. The thing was merely infantile and absurd. Moreover, I violently object to booksellers sitting in judgment on novels.


[16 May '08]

The result of Murray v. The Times is very amusing. I don't know why the fact that the Times is called upon to pay L7500 to Mr. John Murray should make me laugh joyously; but it does. Certainly the reason is not that I sympathize with the libelled Mr. Murray. The action was a great and a wonderful action, full of enigmas for a mere man of letters like myself. For example, Mr. Murray said that his agreement with the "authors" (I cannot imagine how Lord Esher and Mr. A.C. Benson came to be the "authors" of the late Queen's correspondence) stipulated that two-thirds of the profits should go to the "authors" and one-third to Mr. Murray. Secondly, Mr. Murray said that he paid the authors L5592 14s. 2d. Thirdly, he said that his own profit was L600. Hence L600 is the half of L5592 14s. 2d. I have no doubt that there exists some quite simple explanation of this new arithmetic; only it has not occurred to me, my name not being Colenso. The whole enterprise was regal, as befitted. Proof-corrections cost twice as much as the original setting up! A mere man of letters would be inclined to suspect that the printing was begun too soon; it is usual to postpone setting-up a book until the book is written. Balzac partially beggared himself by ignoring this rule. Balzac, however, was not published by Mr. Murray. L950 was paid to the amanuensis! Oh, amanuensis, how I wonder who you are, up above the world so high, like a fashionable novelist in the sky! And so on.

* * * * *

The attitude of Tunbridge Wells (the most plutocratic town in England, by the way) towards the book was adorable. "Mr. Daniel Williams, a bookseller and librarian, of Tunbridge Wells, said that after the review by 'Artifex' people complained that the price of the book was too high. No complaints were made before that." They read their Times Literary Supplement at the Wells, and they still wait for it to thunder, and when it has thundered—and not before—they rattle their tea-trays, and the sequel is red ruin! Again, Mr. Justice Darling, in his ineptly decorated summing-up, observed that it was hardly too much to say that "the plaintiff's house—the house of Murray," was a national institution. It would be hardly too much to say that also the house of Crosse and Blackwell is a national institution, and that Mr. Justice Darling is a national institution. By all means let us count the brothers Murray as a national institution, even as an Imperial institution. But let us guard against the notion, everywhere cropping up, that such "houses" as the dignified and wealthy house of Murray are in some mysterious way responsible for English literature, part-authors of English literature, to whom half of the glory of English literature is due. It is well to remember now and then that publishers who have quite squarely made vast sums out of selling the work of creative artists are not thereby creative artists themselves. A publisher is a tradesman; infinitely less an artist than a tailor is an artist. Often a publisher knows what the public will buy in literature. Very rarely he knows what is good literature. Scarcely ever will he issue a distinguished book exclusively because it is a distinguished book. And he is right, for he is only a tradesman. But to judge from the otiose majesty of some publishers, one would imagine that they had written at least "Childe Harold." There is the case of a living publisher (not either of the brothers Murray) whose presence at his country chateau is indicated to the surrounding nobility, gentry, and peasantry by the unfurling of the Royal standard over a turret.

* * * * *

To return to the subject, the price at which the house of Murray issued the "Letters of Queen Victoria" was not "extortionate," having regard to the astounding expenses of publication. But why were the expenses so astounding? If the book had not been one which by its intrinsic interest compelled purchase, would the "authors" have been remunerated like the managers of a steel trust? Would the paper have been so precious and costly? Would the illustrations have so enriched photographers? And would the amanuensis have made L350 more out of the thing then Mr. Murray himself? The price was not extortionate. But it was farcical. The entire rigmarole combines to throw into dazzling prominence the fact that modern literature in this country is still absolutely undemocratic. The time will come, and much sooner than many august mandarins anticipate, when such a book as the "Letters of Queen Victoria" will be issued at six shillings, and newspapers will be fined L7500 for saying that the price is extortionate and ought not to exceed half a crown. Assuredly there is no commercial reason why the book should not have been published at 6s. or thereabouts. Only mandarinism prevented that. Mr. Murray's profits would have been greater, though "authors," amanuenses, photographers, paper-makers, West-End booksellers, and other parasitic artisans might have suffered slightly.


[23 May '08]

It has commonly been supposed that the publication of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" resulted, at first, in a loss to the author. I am sure that every one will be extremely relieved to learn, from a letter recently printed in L'Intermediaire (the French equivalent of Notes and Queries), that the supposition is incorrect. Here is a translation of part of the letter, written by the celebrated publishers, Poulet-Malassis, to an author unnamed. The whole letter is very interesting, and it would probably reconcile the "authors" of the correspondence of Queen Victoria to the sweating system by which they received the miserable sum of L5592 14s. 2d. from Mr. John Murray for their Titanic labours.

October 23, 1857.

"I think, sir, that you are in error as to Messrs. Levy's method of doing business. Messrs. Levy buy for 400 francs [L16] the right to publish a book during four years. It was on these terms that they bought the stories of Jules de la Madeleine, Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary,' etc. These facts are within my knowledge. To take an example among translations, they bought from Baudelaire, for 400 francs, the right to publish 6000 copies of his Poe. We do not work in this way. We buy for 200 francs (L8) the right to publish an edition of 1200 copies.... If the book succeeds, so much the better for the author, who makes 200 francs out of every edition of 1200 copies. If M. Flaubert, whose book is in its third edition, had come to us instead of to Messrs. Levy, his book would already have brought him in 1000 francs (L40); during the four years that Messrs. Levy will have the rights of his book for a total payment of 400 francs, he might have made two or three thousand francs with us.... Votre bien devoue,


* * * * *

We now know that Flaubert made L16 in four years out of "Madame Bovary," which went into three editions within considerably less than a year of publication. And yet the house of Levy is one of the most respectable and grandiose in France. Moral: English authors ought to go down on their knees and thank God that English publishers are not as other publishers. At least, not always!


[30 May '08]

I have had great joy in Mr. Nowell Charles Smith's new and comprehensive edition of Wordsworth, published by Methuen in three volumes as majestic as Wordsworth himself at his most pontifical. The price is fifteen shillings net, and having regard to the immense labour involved in such an edition, it is very cheap. I would sooner pay fifteen shillings for a real book like this than a guinea for the memoirs of any tin god that ever sat up at nights to keep a diary; yea, even though the average collection of memoirs will furnish material to light seven hundred pipes. We have lately been much favoured with first-rate editions of poets. I mention Mr. de Selincourt's Keats, and Mr. George Sampson's amazing and not-to-be-sufficiently-lauded Blake. Mr. Smith's work is worthy to stand on the same shelf with these. A shining virtue of Mr. Smith's edition is that it embodies the main results of the researches and excavations not only of Professor Knight, but, more important, of the wonderful Mr. Hutchinson, whose contributions to the Academy, in days of yore, were the delight of Wordsworthians.

* * * * *

Personally, I became a member of the order of Wordsworthians in the historic year 1891, when Matthew Arnold's "Selections" were issued to the public at the price of half a crown. I suppose that Matthew Arnold and Sir Leslie Stephen were the two sanest Wordsworthians of us all. And Matthew Arnold put Wordsworth above all modern poets except Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Milton, and Moliere. The test of a Wordsworthian is the ability to read with pleasure every line that the poet wrote. I regret to say that, strictly, Matthew Arnold was not a perfect Wordsworthian; he confessed, with manly sincerity, that he could not read "Vaudracour and Julia" with pleasure. This was a pity and Matthew Arnold's loss. For a strict Wordsworthian, while utterly conserving his reverence for the most poetic of poets, can discover a keen ecstasy in the perusal of the unconsciously funny lines which Wordsworth was constantly perpetrating. And I would back myself to win the first prize in any competition for Wordsworth's funniest line with a quotation from "Vaudracour and Julia." My prize-line would assuredly be:

Yea, his first word of greeting was,— "All right....

It is true that the passage goes on:

Is gone from me....

But that does not impair the magnificent funniness.

* * * * *

From his tenderest years Wordsworth succeeded in combining the virtues of Milton and of Punch in a manner that no other poet has approached. Thus, at the age of eighteen, he could write:

Now while the solemn evening shadows sail, On slowly-waving pinions, down the vale; And fronting the bright west, yon oak entwines Its darkening boughs....

Which really is rather splendid for a boy. And he could immediately follow that, speaking of a family of swans, with:

While tender cares and mild domestic loves With furtive watch pursue her as she moves, The female with a meeker charm succeeds....

Wordsworth richly atoned for his unconscious farcicalness by a multitude of single lines that, in their pregnant sublimity, attend the Wordsworthian like a shadow throughout his life, warning him continually when he is in danger of making a fool of himself. Thus, whenever through mere idleness I begin to waste the irrecoverable moments of eternity, I always think of that masterly phrase (from, I think, the "Prelude," but I will not be sure):

Unprofitably travelling towards the grave.

This line is a most convenient and effective stone to throw at one's languid friends. Finally let me hail Mr. Nowell Smith as a benefactor.


[20 June '08]

A bad publishing season is now drawing to a close, and in the air are rumours of a crisis. Of course the fault is the author's. It goes without saying that the fault is the author's. In the first place, he will insist on producing mediocre novels. (For naturally the author is a novelist; only novelists count when crises loom. Algernon Charles Swinburne, Edward Carpenter, Robert Bridges, Lord Morley—these types have no relation to crises.) It appears that the publishers have been losing money over the six-shilling novel, and that they are not going to stand the loss any longer. It is stated that never in history were novels so atrociously mediocre as they are to-day. And in the second place, the author will insist on employing an Unspeakable Rascal entitled a literary agent, and the poor innocent lamb of a publisher is fleeced to the naked skin by this scoundrel every time the two meet. Already I have heard that one publisher, hitherto accustomed to the services of twenty gardeners at his country house, has been obliged to reduce the horticultural staff to eighteen.

Such is the publishers' explanation of the crisis. I shall keep my own explanation till the crisis is a little more advanced and ready to burst. In the meantime I should like to ask: How do people manage to range over the whole period of the novel's history and definitely decide that novels were never so bad as they are now? I am personally inclined to think that at no time has the average novel been so good as it is to-day. (This view, by the way, is borne out by publishers' own advertisements, which abound in the word "masterpiece" quoted from infallible critics of great masterpieces!) Let any man who disagrees with me dare go to Mudie's and get out a few forgotten novels of thirty years ago and try to read them! Also, I am prepared to offer L50 for the name and address of a literary agent who is capable of getting the better of a publisher. I am widely acquainted with publishers and literary agents, and though I have often met publishers who have got the better of literary agents, I have never met a literary agent who has come out on top of a publisher. Such a literary agent is badly wanted. I have been looking for him for years. I know a number of authors who would join me in enriching that literary agent. The publishers are always talking about him. I seldom go into a publisher's office but that literary agent has just left (gorged with illicit gold). It irritates me that I cannot run across him. If I were a publisher, he would have been in prison ere now. Briefly, the manner in which certain prominent publishers, even clever ones, talk about literary agents is silly.

* * * * *

Still, I am ready to believe that publishers have lost money over the six-shilling novel. I am acquainted with the details of several instances of such loss. And in every case the loss has been the result of gambling on the part of the publisher. I do not hesitate to say that the terms offered in late years by some publishers to some popular favourites have been grotesquely inflated. Publishers compete among themselves, and then, when the moment comes for paying the gambler's penalty, they complain of having been swindled. Note that the losses of publishers are nearly always on the works of the idols of the crowd. They want the idol's name as an ornament to their lists, and they commit indiscretions in order to get it. Fantastic terms are never offered to the solid, regular, industrious, medium novelist. And it is a surety that fantastic terms are never offered to the beginner. Ask, and learn.

* * * * *

But though I admit that money has been lost, I do not think the losses have been heavy. After all, no idolized author and no diabolic agent can force a publisher to pay more than he really wants to pay. And no diabolic agent, having once bitten a publisher, can persuade that publisher to hold out his generous hand to be bitten again. These are truisms. Lastly, I am quite sure that, out of books, a great deal more money has been made by publishers than by authors, and that this will always be so. The threatened crisis in publishing has nothing to do with the prices paid to authors, which on the whole are now fairly just (very different from what they were twenty years ago, when authors had to accept whatever was condescendingly offered to them). And if a crisis does come, the people to suffer will happily be those who can best afford to suffer.


[11 July '08]

The publishing season—the bad publishing season—is now practically over, and publishers may go away for their holidays comforted by the fact that they will not begin to lose money again till the autumn. It only remains to be decided which is the novel of the season. Those interested in the question may expect it to be decided at any moment, either in the British Weekly or the Sphere. I take up these journals with a thrill of anticipation. For my part, I am determined only to decide which is not the novel of the season. There are several novels which are not the novel of the season. Perhaps the chief of them is Mr. E.C. Booth's "The Cliff End," which counts among sundry successes to the score of Mr. Grant Richards. Everything has been done for it that reviewing can do, and it has sold, and it is an ingenious and giggling work, but not the novel of the season.

The reviews of "The Cliff End," almost unanimously laudatory, show in a bright light our national indifference to composition in art. Some reviewers, while stating that the story itself was a poor one, insisted that Mr. Booth is a born and accomplished story-teller. Story-tellers born and accomplished do not tell poor stories. A poor story is the work of a poor story-teller. And the story of "The Cliff End" is merely absurd. It is worse, if possible, than the story of Mr. Maxwell's "Vivien," which reviewers accepted. It would appear that with certain novels the story doesn't matter! I really believe that composition, the foundation of all arts, including the art of fiction, is utterly unconsidered in England. Or if it is considered, it is painfully misunderstood. I remember how the panjandrums condescendingly pointed out the bad construction of Mr. Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim," one of the most noble examples of fine composition in modern literature, and but slightly disfigured by a detail of clumsy machinery. In "The Cliff End" there is simply no composition that is not clumsy and conventional. All that can be said of it is that you can't read a page, up to about page 200, without grinning. (Unhappily Mr. Booth overestimated his stock of grins, which ran out untimely.) The true art of fiction, however, is not chiefly connected with grinning, or with weeping. It consists, first and mainly, in a beautiful general composition. But in Anglo-Saxon countries any writer who can induce both a grin and a tear on the same page, no matter how insolent his contempt for composition, is sure of that immortality which contemporaries can award.

* * * * *

Another novel that is not the novel of the season is Mr. John Ayscough's "Marotz," about which much has been said. I do not wish to labour this point. "Marotz" is not the novel of the season. I trust that I make myself plain. I shall not pronounce upon Mr. Masefield's "Captain Margaret," because, though it has been splashed all over by trowelfuls of slabby and mortarish praise, it has real merits. Indeed, it has a chance of being the novel of the season. Mr. Masefield is not yet grown up. He is always trying to write "literature," and that is a great mistake. He should study the wisdom of Paul Verlaine:

Prends l'eloquence et tords-lui son cou.

Take literature and wring its neck. I suppose that Mr. H. de Vere Stacpoole's "The Blue Lagoon" is not likely to be selected as the novel of the season. And yet, possibly, it will be the novel of the season after all, though unchosen. I will not labour this point, either. Any one read "The Blue Lagoon" yet? Some folk have read it, for it is in its sixth edition. But when I say any one, I mean some one, not mere folk. It might be worth looking into, "The Blue Lagoon." Verbum sap., often, to Messrs. Robertson Nicoll and Shorter. In choosing "Confessio Medici" as the book of the season in general literature, Dr. Nicoll [Now Sir William Robertson Nicoll] has already come a fearful cropper, and he must regret it. I would give much to prevent him from afflicting the intelligent when the solemn annual moment arrives for him to make the reputation of a novelist.


[18 July '08]

I think I could read anything about German Colonial expansion. The subject may not appear to be attractive; but it is. The reason lies in the fact that one is always maliciously interested in the failures of pompous and conceited persons. In the same way, one is conscious of disappointment that the navy pother has not blossomed into a naked scandal. A naked scandal would be a bad thing, and yet one feels cheated because it has not occurred. At least I do. And I am rather human. I can glut myself on German colonial expansion—a wondrous flower. I have just read with genuine avidity M. Tonnelat's "L'Expansion allemande hors d'Europe" (Armand Colin, 3 fr. 50). It is a very good book. Most of it does not deal with colonial expansion, but with the growth and organization of Germania in the United States and Brazil. There is some delicious psychology in this part of the book. Hear the German Governor of Pennsylvania: "As for me, I consider that if the influence of the German colonist had been eliminated from Pennsylvania, Philadelphia would never have been anything but an ordinary American town like Boston, New York, Baltimore, or Chicago." M. Tonnelat gives a masterly and succinct account of the relations between Germans and native races in Africa (particularly the Hereros). It is farcical, disastrous, piquant, and grotesque. The documentation is admirably done. What can you do but smile when you gather from a table that for the murder of seven Germans by natives fifteen capital punishments and one life-imprisonment were awarded; whereas, for the murder of five natives (including a woman) by Germans, the total punishment was six and a quarter years of prison. In 1906 the amazing German Colonial Empire cost 180 millions of marks. A high price to pay for a comic opera, even with real waterfalls! M. Tonnelat has combined sobriety and exactitude with an exciting readableness.

The Book-Buyer

[22 Aug. '08]

In the month of August, when the book trade is supposed to be dead, but which, nevertheless, sees the publication of novels by Joseph Conrad and Marie Corelli (if Joseph Conrad is one Pole, Marie Corelli is surely the other), I have had leisure to think upon the most curious of all the problems that affect the author: Who buys books? Who really does buy books? We grumble at the lack of enterprise shown by booksellers. We inveigh against that vague and long-suffering body of tradesmen because in the immortal Strand, where there are forty tobacconists, thirty-nine restaurants, half a dozen theatres, seventeen necktie shops, one Short's, and one thousand three hundred and fourteen tea cafes, there should be only two establishments for the sale of new books. We are shocked that in the whole of Regent Street it is impossible to buy a new book. We shudder when, in crossing the virgin country of the suburbs, we travel for days and never see a single bookshop. But whose fault is it that bookshops are so few? Are booksellers people who have a conscientious objection to selling books? Or is it that nobody wants to buy books?

Personally, I extract some sort of a living—a dog's existence—from the sale of books with my name on the title-page. And I am acquainted with a few other individuals who perform the same feat. I am also acquainted with a large number of individuals who have no connexion with the manufacture or distribution of literature. And when I reflect upon the habits of this latter crowd, I am astonished that I or anybody else can succeed in paying rent out of what comes to the author from the sale of books. I know scarcely a soul, I have scarcely ever met a soul, who can be said to make a habit of buying new books. I know a few souls who borrow books from Mudie's and elsewhere, and I recognize that their subscriptions yield me a trifle. But what a trifle! Do you know anybody who really buys new books? Have you ever heard tell of such a being? Of course, there are Franklinish and self-improving young men (and conceivably women) who buy cheap editions of works which the world will not willingly let die: the Temple Classics, Everyman's Library, the World's Classics, the Universal Library. Such volumes are to be found in many refined and strenuous homes—oftener unopened than opened—but still there! But does this estimable practice aid the living author to send his children to school in decent clothes? He whom I am anxious to meet is the man who will not willingly let die the author who is not yet dead. No society for the prevention of the death of corpses will help me to pay my butcher's bill.

* * * * *

I know that people buy motor-cars, for the newspapers are full of the dust of them. I know that they buy seats in railway carriages and theatres, and meals at restaurants, and cravats of the new colour, and shares in companies, for they talk about their purchases, and rise into ecstasies of praise or blame concerning them. I want to learn about the people who buy new books—modest band who never praise nor blame, nor get excited over their acquisitions, preferring to keep silence, preferring to do good in secret! Let an enterprising inventor put a new tyre on the market, and every single purchaser will write to the Press and state that he has bought it and exactly what he thinks about it. Yet, though the purchasers of a fairly popular new book must be as numerous as the purchasers of a new tyre, not one of them ever "lets on" that he has purchased. I want some book-buyers to come forward and at any rate state that they have bought a book, with some account of the adventure. I should then feel partly reassured. I should know by demonstration that a book-buyer did exist; whereas at present all I can do is to assume the existence of a book-buyer whom I have never seen, and whom nobody has ever seen. It seems to me that if a few book-buyers would kindly come forward and confess—with proper statistics—the result would be a few columns quite pleasant to read in the quietude of September.


[19 Sep. '08]

The Athenaeum is a serious journal, genuinely devoted to learning. The mischief is that it will persist in talking about literature. I do not wish to be accused of breaking a butterfly on a wheel, but the Athenaeum's review of Mr. Joseph Conrad's new book, "A Set of Six," in its four thousand two hundred and eighteenth issue, really calls for protest. At that age the Athenaeum ought, at any rate, to know better than to make itself ridiculous. It owes an apology to Mr. Conrad. Here we have a Pole who has taken the trouble to come from the ends of the earth to England, to learn to speak the English language, and to write it like a genius; and he is received in this grotesque fashion by the leading literary journal! Truly, the Athenaeum's review resembles nothing so much as the antics of a provincial mayor round a foreign monarch sojourning in his town.

* * * * *

For, of course, the Athenaeum is obsequious. In common with every paper in this country, it has learnt that the proper thing is to praise Mr. Conrad's work. Not to appreciate Mr. Conrad's work at this time of day would amount to bad form. There is a cliche in nearly every line of the Athenaeum's discriminating notice. "Mr. Conrad is not the kind of author whose work one is content to meet only in fugitive form," etc. "Those who appreciate fine craftsmanship in fiction," etc. But there is worse than cliches. For example: "It is too studiously chiselled and hammered-out for that." (God alone knows for what.) Imagine the effect of studiously chiselling a work and then hammering it out! Useful process! I wonder the Athenaeum did not suggest that Mr. Conrad, having written a story, took it to Brooklands to get it run over by a motor-car. Again: "His effects are studiously wrought, although—such is his mastery of literary art—they produce a swift and penetrating impression." Impossible not to recall the weighty judgment of one of Stevenson's characters upon the Athenaeum: "Golly, what a paper!"

* * * * *

The Athenaeum further says: "His is not at all the impressionistic method." Probably the impressionistic method is merely any method that the Athenaeum doesn't like. But one would ask: Has it ever read the opening paragraph of "The Return," perhaps the most dazzling feat of impressionism in modern English? The Athenaeum says also: "Upon the whole, we do not think the short story represents Mr. Conrad's true metier" It may be that Mr. Conrad's true metier was, after all, that of an auctioneer; but, after "Youth," "To-morrow," "Typhoon," "Karain," "The End of the Tether," and half a dozen other mere masterpieces, he may congratulate himself on having made a fairly successful hobby of the short story. The most extraordinary of all the Athenaeum's remarks is this: "The one ship story here, 'The Brute,' makes us regret that the author does not give us more of the sea in his work." Well, considering that about two-thirds of Mr. Conrad's work deals with the sea, considering that he has written "Lord Jim," "The Nigger of the Narcissus" "Typhoon," "Nostromo," and "The Mirror of the Sea," this regret shall be awarded the gold medal of the silly season. If the Athenaeum were a silly paper, like the Academy, I should have kept an august silence on this ineptitude. But the Athenaeum has my respect. It ought to remember the responsibilities of its position, and ought not to entrust an important work of letters to some one whose most obvious characteristic is an exquisite and profound incompetence for criticism. The explanation that occurs to me is that "A Set of Six" and "Diana Mallory" got mixed on the Athenaeum's library table, and that each was despatched to the critic chosen for the other.

* * * * *

"A Set of Six" will not count among Mr. Conrad's major works. But in the mere use of English it shows an advance upon all his previous books. In some of his finest chapters there is scarcely a page without a phrase that no Englishman would have written, and in nearly every one of his books slight positive errors in the use of English are fairly common. In "A Set of Six" I have detected no error and extremely few questionable terms. The influence of his deep acquaintance with French is shown in the position of the adverb in "I saw again somebody in the porch." It cannot be called bad English, but it is queer. "Inasmuch that" could certainly be defended (compare "in so much that"), but an Englishman would not, I think, have written it. Nor would an Englishman be likely to write "that sort of adventures."

Mr. Conrad still maintains his preference for indirect narrative through the mouths of persons who witnessed the events to be described. I dare say that he would justify the device with great skill and convincingness. But it undoubtedly gives an effect of clumsiness. The first story in the volume, "Gaspar Ruiz," is a striking instance of complicated narrative machinery. This peculiarity also detracts from the realistic authority of the work. For by the time you have got to the end of "A Set of Six" you have met a whole series of men who all talk just as well as Mr. Conrad writes, and upon calm reflection the existence of a whole series of such men must seem to you very improbable. The best pages in the book are those devoted to the ironical contemplation of a young lady anarchist. They are tremendous.


[26 Sep. '08]

The death of Professor Churton Collins appears to have been attended by painful circumstances, and one may be permitted to regret the disappearance from the literary arena of this vigorous pundit. He had an agreeable face, with pendant hair and the chin of a fighter. His industry must have been terrific, and personally I can forgive anything to him who consistently and violently works. He had also acquired much learning. Indeed, I should suppose that on the subject of literature he was the most learned man in Britain. Unfortunately, he was quite bereft of original taste. The root of the matter was not in him. The frowning structure of his vast knowledge overawed many people, but it never overawed an artist—unless the artist was excessively young and naive. A man may heap up facts and facts on a given topic, and assort and label them, and have the trick of producing any particular fact at an instant's notice, and yet, despite all his efforts and honest toil, rest hopelessly among the profane. Churton Collins was such a man. He had no artistic feeling. Apart from the display of learning, which is always pleasant to the man of letters, his essays were arid and tedious. I never heard him lecture, but should imagine that he was an ideal University Extension lecturer. I do not mean this to be in the least complimentary to him as a critic. His book, "Illustrations Tennyson," was an entirely sterile exercise proving on every page that the author had no real perceptions about literature. It simply made creative artists laugh. They knew. His more recent book on modern tendencies displayed in an acute degree the characteristic inability of the typical professor to toddle alone when released from the leading-strings of tradition.

* * * * *

I fear that most of our professors are in a similar fix. There is Professor George Saintsbury, a regular Albert Memorial of learning. In my pensive moments I have sometimes yearned to know as many facts about literature as Professor Saintsbury knows, though he did once, I am told, state that "Wuthering Heights" was written by Charlotte. (That must have been a sadly shocking day for Mr. Clement Shorter!) I have found his Liebig "History of French Literature" very useful; it has never failed to inform me what I ought to think about the giants of the past. More important, Professor Saintsbury's critical introductions to the whole series of Dent's English edition of Balzac are startlingly just. Over and over again he hits the nail on the head and spares his finger. I have never understood by what magic he came to accomplish these prefaces. For the root of the matter is no more in Professor Saintsbury than it was in Churton Collins. He has not comprehended what he was talking about. The proof—his style and his occasional pronouncements on questions as to which he has been quite free to make up his mind all by himself!

* * * * *

I remember one evening discussing the talents of a certain orchestral conductor, who also played the violin. I was talking to a member of his orchestra, a very genuine artist. We agreed that he had conducted badly; but, I said in his defence, "Anyhow his intentions are good. You must admit that he has a feeling for music." "My dear fellow," exclaimed the bandsman pettishly, "no one who had any feeling for music could possibly stand the d——d row that that chap makes on the fiddle." I was silenced. I recall this episode in connexion with Professor Saintsbury. No one who had any feeling for literature could possibly put down the —— style that Professor Saintsbury commits. His pen could not be brought to write it. Professor Saintsbury may be as loudly positive as he likes—his style is always quietly whispering: "Don't listen." As to his modern judgments—well for their own sakes professors of literature ought to bind themselves by oaths never to say anything about any author who was not safely dead twenty years before they were born. Such an ordinance would at any rate ensure their dignity.

* * * * *

Yet another example is Professor Walter Raleigh. Fifty per cent. of you will leap up and say that I am being perverse. But I am not. It has been demonstrated to me satisfactorily, by contact with Liverpool people, that Professor Raleigh's personal influence at that university in certain ways made for righteousness. Nevertheless, Professor Raleigh has himself demonstrated to me that, wherever the root of the matter may be, it is not in him. One must remember that he is young, and that his underived opinions are therefore less likely to clash with the authoritative opinions of living creative artists on their contemporaries and predecessors than if he were of the same generation as the Collinses and the Saintsburys. But wait a few years. Wait until something genuinely new and original comes along and you will see what you will see. If he wished not to ruin his reputation among artists, among people who really create things, he ought not to have published his books on "Style" and on "Shakespere." He ought to have burnt them. For they are as hollow as a drum and as unoriginal as a bride-cake: nothing but vacuity with an icing of phrases. I am brought back again to the anecdote of the musician. No one who had the least glimmering of an individual vision of what style truly is could possibly have tolerated the too fearfully ingenious mess of words that Professor Raleigh courageously calls a book on "Style." The whole thing is a flagrant contradiction of every notion of style. It may not be generally known (and I do not state it as a truth) that Professor Raleigh is a distant connexion of the celebrated family of Pains, pyrotechnicians. I would begin to go to the Empire again if I could see on the programme: "10.20. Professor Raleigh, in his unique prestidigitatory performance with words." Yes, I would stroll once more into the hallowed Promenade to see that. It would be amusing. But it would have no connexion with literature.


[3 Oct. '08]

It was the commercial genius of Mr. Hall Caine that invented the idea of publishing important novels during the "off" season. Miss Marie Corelli, by a sure instinct, followed suit. And now all sorts of stars, from genuine artists to mere successful artisans, take care to publish in the off season. Thus within the last few weeks we have had novels from Eden Phillpotts, Miss Beatrice Harraden, Anthony Hope, Mrs. Humphry Ward, and Miss Marie Corelli. At this rate the autumn will soon become the slack time; August will burn and throb with a six-shilling activity; publishers' clerks will form a union; and the Rt. Hon. W.F.D. Smith, M.P., who has always opposed an eight hours day, will bring in a Bill for an eight months year.

* * * * *

That a considerable social importance still attaches to the publication of a novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward may be judged from the fact that the Manchester Guardian specially reviewed the book on its leader page. This strange phenomenon deserves to be studied, because the Manchester Guardian's reviewing easily surpasses that of any other daily paper, except, possibly, the Times in its Literary Supplement. The Guardian relies on mere, sheer intellectual power, and as a rule it does not respect persons. Its theatrical critics, for example, take joy in speaking the exact truth—never whispered in London—concerning the mandarins of the stage. Now it is remarkable that the only strictly first-class morning daily in these isles should have printed the Guardian's review of "Diana Mallory" (signed "B.S."); for the article respected persons. I do not object to Mrs. Humphry Ward being reviewed with splendid prominence. I am quite willing to concede that a new book from her constitutes the matter of a piece of news, since it undoubtedly interests a large number of respectable and correct persons. A novel by Miss Marie Corelli, however, constitutes the matter of a greater piece of news; yet I have seen no review of "Holy Orders," even in a corner, in the Guardian. Surely the Guardian was not prevented from dealing faithfully with "Holy Orders" by the fact that it received no review copy, or by the fact that Miss Corelli desired no review. Its news department in general is conducted without reference to the desires of Miss Marie Corelli, and it does not usually boggle at an expenditure of four-and-sixpence. Why, then, Mrs. Humphry Ward being reviewed specially, is not Miss Marie Corelli reviewed specially? If the answer be that Mrs. Humphry Ward's novels are better, as literature, than Miss Corelli's, I submit that the answer is insufficient, and lacking in Manchester sincerity.

* * * * *

Let me duly respect Mrs. Humphry Ward. She knows her business. She is an expert in narrative. She can dress up even the silliest incidents of sentimental fiction—such as that in which the virgin heroine, in company with a young man, misses the last train home (see "Helbeck of Bannisdale")—in a costume of plausibility. She is a conscientious worker. She does not make a spectacle of herself in illustrated interviews. Even in agitating against votes for women she can maintain her dignity. (She would be an ideal President of the Authors' Society.) But, then, similar remarks apply, say, to Mr. W.E. Norris. Mr. W.E. Norris is as accomplished an expert as Mrs. Humphry Ward. He is in possession of a much better style. He has humour. He is much more true to life. He has never compromised the dignity of his vocation. Nevertheless, the prospect of the Guardian reviewing Mr. W.E. Norris on its leader page is remote, for the reason that though he pleases respectable and correct persons, he does not please nearly so many respectable and correct persons as does Mrs. Humphry Ward. If anybody has a right to the leader page of our unique daily, Mrs. Humphry Ward is that body. My objection to the phenomenon is that the Guardian falsified its item of news. It deliberately gave the impression that a serious work of art had appeared in "Diana Mallory." It ought to have known better. It did know better. If our unique daily is to yield to the snobbishness which ranks Mrs. Humphry Ward among genuine artists, where among dailies are we to look for the shadow of a great rock?

* * * * *

Mrs. Humphry Ward's novels are praise-worthy as being sincerely and skilfully done, but they are not works of art. They are possibly the best stuff now being swallowed by the uneducated public; and they deal with the governing classes; and when you have said that you have said all. Nothing truly serious can happen in them. It is all make-believe. No real danger of the truth about life!... I should think not, indeed! The fearful quandary in which the editor of Harper's found himself with "Jude the Obscure" was a lesson to all Anglo-Saxon editors for ever more! Mrs. Humphry Ward has never got nearer to life than, for instance, "Rita" has got—nor so near! Gladstone, a thoroughly bad judge of literature, made her reputation, and not on a post card, either! Gladstone had no sense of humour—at any rate when he ventured into literature. Nor has Mrs. Humphry Ward. If she had she would not concoct those excruciating heroines of hers. She probably does not know that her heroines are capable of rousing temperaments such as my own to ecstasies of homicidal fury. Moreover, in literature all girls named Diana are insupportable. Look at Diana Vernon, beloved of Mr. Andrew Lang, I believe! What a creature! Imagine living with her! You can't! Look at Diana of the Crossways. Why did Diana of the Crossways marry? Nobody can say—unless the answer is that she was a ridiculous ninny. Would Anne Elliot have made such an inexplicable fool of herself? Why does Diana Mallory "go to" her preposterous Radical ex-M.P.? Simply because she is tiresomely absurd. Oh, those men with strong chins and irreproachable wristbands! Oh, those cultured conversations! Oh, those pure English maids! That skittishness! That impulsiveness! That noxious winsomeness!

* * * * *

I have invented a destiny for Mrs. Humphry Ward's heroines. It is terrible, and just. They ought to be caught, with their lawful male protectors, in the siege of a great city by a foreign army. Their lawful male protectors ought, before sallying forth on a forlorn hope, to provide them with a revolver as a last refuge from a brutal and licentious soldiery. And when things come to a crisis, in order to be concluded in our next, the revolvers ought to prove to be unloaded. I admit that this invention of mine is odious, and quite un-English, and such as would never occur to a right-minded subscriber to Mudie's. But it illustrates the mood caused in me by witnessing the antics of those harrowing dolls.


[24 Oct. '08]

I have been reading a new novel by Mr. W.W. Jacobs—"Salthaven" (Methuen, 6s.). It is a long time since I read a book of his. Ministries have fallen since then, and probably Mr. Jacobs' prices have risen—indeed, much has happened—but the talent of the author of "Many Cargoes" remains steadfast where it did. "Salthaven" is a funny book. Captain Trimblett, to excuse the lateness of a friend for tea, says to the landlady: "He saw a man nearly run over!" and the landlady replies: "Yes, but how long would that take him?" If you ask me whether I consider this humorous, I reply that I do. I also consider humorous this conversational description of an exemplary boy who took to "Sandford and Merton" "as a duck takes to water": "By modelling his life on its teaching" (says young Vyner) "he won a silver medal for never missing an attendance at school. Even the measles failed to stop him. Day by day, a little more flushed than usual, perhaps, he sat in his place until the whole school was down with it, and had to be closed in consequence. Then and not till then did he feel that he had saved the situation." I care nothing for the outrageous improbability of any youthful son of a shipowner being able to talk in the brilliant fashion in which Mr. Jacobs makes Vyner talk. Success excuses it. "Salthaven" is bathed in humour.

* * * * *

At the same time I am dissatisfied with "Salthaven." And I do not find it easy to explain why. I suppose the real reason is that it discloses no signs of any development whatever on the part of the author. Worse, it discloses no signs of intellectual curiosity on the part of the author. Mr. Jacobs seems to live apart from the movement of his age. Nothing, except the particular type of humanity and environment in which he specializes, seems to interest him. There is no hint of a general idea in his work. By some of his fellow-artists he is immensely admired. I have heard him called, seriously, the greatest humorist since Aristophanes. I admire him myself, and I will not swear that he is not the greatest humorist since Aristophanes. But I will swear that no genuine humorist ever resembled Aristophanes less than Mr. Jacobs does. Aristophanes was passionately interested in everything. He would leave nothing alone. Whereas Mr. Jacobs will leave nearly everything alone. Kipling's general ideas are excessively crude, but one does feel in reading him that his curiosity is boundless, even though his taste in literature must infallibly be bad. "Q" is not to be compared in creative power with either of these two men, but one does feel in reading him that he is interested in other manifestations of his own art, that he cares for literature. Impossible to gather from Mr. Jacobs' work that he cares for anything serious at all; impossible to differentiate his intellectual outlook from that of an average reader of the Strand Magazine! I do not bring this as a reproach against Mr. Jacobs, whose personality it would be difficult not to esteem and to like. He cannot alter himself. I merely record the phenomenon as worthy of notice.

* * * * *

Mr. Jacobs is not alone. Among our very successful novelists there are many like him in what I will roundly term intellectual sluggishness, though there is, perhaps, none with quite his talent. Have these men entered into a secret compact not to touch a problem even with a pair of tongs? Or are they afraid of being confused with Hall Caine, Mrs. Humphry Ward, and Miss Marie Corelli, who anyhow have the merit of being interested in the wide aspects of their age? I do not know. But I think we might expect a little more general activity from some of our authors who lie tranquil, steeped in success as lizards in sunshine. I speak delicately, for I am on delicate ground. I do, however, speak as a creative artist, and not as a critic. Occasionally my correspondents upbraid me for not writing like a critic. I have never pretended to look at things from any other standpoint than that of a creative artist.


[24 Oct. '08]

It is a long time since I read a new book by Mr. Kenneth Grahame, but the fault is his rather than mine. I suppose that I was not the only reader who opened "The Wind in the Willows" (Methuen, 6s.) with an unusual and apprehensive curiosity. Would it disappoint? For really, you know, to live up to "The Golden Age" and "Pagan Papers" could not be an easy task—and after so many years of silence! It is ten years, if I mistake not, since Mr. Kenneth Grahame put his name to anything more important than the official correspondence of the Bank of England. Well, "The Wind in the Willows" does not disappoint. Here, indeed, we have the work of a man who is obviously interested in letters and in life, the work of a fastidious and yet a very robust artist. But the book is fairly certain to be misunderstood of the people. The publishers' own announcement describes it as "perhaps chiefly for youth," a description with which I disagree. The obtuse are capable of seeing in it nothing save a bread-and-butter imitation of "The Jungle Book." The woodland and sedgy lore in it is discreet and attractive. Names of animals abound in it. But it is nevertheless a book of humanity. The author may call his chief characters the Rat, the Mole, the Toad,—they are human beings, and they are meant to be nothing but human beings. Were it otherwise, the spectacle of a toad going through the motor-car craft would be merely incomprehensible and exasperating. The superficial scheme of the story is so childishly naive, or so daringly naive, that only a genius could have preserved it from the ridiculous. The book is an urbane exercise in irony at the expense of the English character and of mankind. It is entirely successful. Whatever may happen to it in the esteem of mandarins and professors, it will beyond doubt be considered by authentic experts as a work highly distinguished, original, and amusing—and no more to be comprehended by youth than "The Golden Age" was to be comprehended by youth.


[29 Oct. '08]

I obtained the new book of Anatole France, "L'Ile des Pingouins," the day after publication, and my copy was marked "eighteenth edition." But in French publishing the word "edition" may mean anything. There is a sort of legend among the simple that it means five hundred copies. The better informed, however, are aware that it often means less. Thus, in the case of the later novels of Emile Zola, an edition meant two hundred copies. This was chiefly to save the self-love of his publishers, who did not care to admit that the idol of a capricious populace had fallen off its pedestal. The vast fiction was created that Zola sold as well as ever! One Paris firm, the "Societe du Mercure de France," which in the domain of pure letters has probably issued in the last dozen years more good books than any other house in the world, has, with astounding courage, adopted the practice of numbering every copy of a book. Thus my copy of its "L'Esprit de Barbey d'Aurevilly" (an exceedingly diverting volume) is numbered 1424. I prefer this to advertisements of "second large edition," etc. One knows where one is. But I fear the example of the Mercure de France is not likely to be honestly imitated.

* * * * *

If Anatole France's "editions" consist of five hundred copies I am glad. For an immediate sale of nine thousand copies is fairly remarkable when the article sold consists of nothing more solid than irony. But I am inclined to think that they do not consist of five hundred copies. There is less enthusiasm—that is to say, less genuine enthusiasm—for Anatole France than there used to be. The majority, of course, could never appreciate him, and would only buy him under the threat of being disdained by the minority, whose sole weapon is scorn. And the minority has been seriously thinking about Anatole France, and coming to the conclusion that, though a genius, he is not the only genius that ever existed. (Stendhal is at present the god of the minority of the race which the Westminister Gazette will persist in referring to as "our French neighbours." In some circles it is now a lapse from taste to read anything but Stendhal.) Anatole France's last two works of imagination did not brilliantly impose themselves on the intellect of his country. "L'Histoire Comique" showed once again his complete inability to construct a novel, and it appeared to be irresponsibly extravagant in its sensuality. And "Sur la Pierre Blanche" was inferior Wells. The minority has waited a long time for something large, original, and arresting; and it has not had it. The author was under no compulsion to write his history of Joan of Arc, which bears little relation to his epoch, and which one is justified in dismissing as the elegant pastime of a savant. If in Anatole France the savant has not lately flourished to the detriment of the fighting philosopher, why should he have spent years on the "Joan of Arc" at a period when Jaures urgently needed intellectual aid against the doctrinarianism of the International Congress? Jaures was beaten, and he yielded, with the result that Clemenceau, a man far too intelligent not to be a practical Socialist at heart, has become semi-reactionary for want of support. This has not much to do with literature. Neither has the history of Joan of Arc. To return to literature, it is indubitable that Anatole France is slightly acquiring the reputation of a dilettante.

* * * * *

In "L'Ile des Pingouins" he returns, in a parable, to his epoch. For this book is the history of France "from the earliest time to the present day," seen in the mirror of the writer's ironical temperament. It is very good. It is inimitable. It is sheer genius. One cannot reasonably find fault with its amazing finesse. But then one is so damnably unreasonable! One had expected—one does not know what one had expected—but anyhow something with a more soaring flight, something more passionate, something a little less gently "tired" in its attitude towards the criminal frailties of mankind! When an A.B. Walkley yawns in print before the spectacle of the modern English theatre, it really doesn't matter. But when an Anatole France grows wearily indulgent before the spectacle of life, one is inclined to wake him by throwing "Leaves of Grass" or "Ecce Homo" (Nietzsche's) at his head. For my part, I am ready to hazard that what is wrong with Anatole France is just spiritual anaemia. Yet only a little while, and he was as great a force for pushing forward as H.G. Wells himself!


[3 Dec. '08]

The judgments of men who have the right to judge are not as other judgments. According to Mr. Yeats "the finest comedian of his kind on the English-speaking stage" is not Mr. George Alexander, but Mr. William Fay! And who, outside Dublin, has ever heard of Mr. J.M. Synge, author of "The Playboy of the Western World?" For myself, I have heard of him, and that is all. Mr. Yeats calls him "a unique man," and puts him above all other Irish creative artists in prose. And very probably Mr. Yeats is correct. For the difference between what informed people truly think about reputations, and what is printed about reputations by mandarins in popular papers, is apt to be startling. The other day I had a terrific pow-wow with one of the most accomplished writers now living; it occurred in the middle of a wood. We presently arrived at this point: He asked impatiently: "Well, who is there who can write tip-top poetry to-day?" I tried to dig out my genuine opinions. Really, it is not so easy to put one's finger on a high-class poet. I gave the names of Robert Bridges and W.B. Yeats. He wouldn't admit Mr. Yeats's tip-topness. "What about T.W.H. Crosland?" he inquired. At first, with the immeasurable and vulgar tedium of Mr. Crosland's popular books in my memory, I thought he was joking. But he was not. He was convinced than an early book by the slanger of suburbs contained as fine poetry as has been written in these days. I was formally bound over to peruse the volume. "And Alfred Douglas?" he said further. (Not that he had shares or interest in the Academy!) Of course, I had to admit that Lord Alfred Douglas, before he began to cut capers in the hinterland of Fleet Street, had been a poet. I have an early volume of his that, to speak mildly, I cherish. I should surmise that scarcely one person in a million has the least idea of the identity of the artists by which the end of the twentieth century will remember the beginning. The vital facts of to-day's literature always lie buried beneath chatter of large editions and immense popularities. I wouldn't mind so much, were it not incontestable that at the end of the century I shall be dead.


[17 Dec. '08]

The Mrs. Humphry Ward of France, M. Rene Bazin, has visited these shores, and has been interviewed. In comparing him to Mrs. Humphry Ward, I am unfair to the lady in one sense and too generous in another. M. Bazin writes perhaps slightly better than Mrs. Humphry Ward, but not much. Per contra, he is a finished master of the art of self-advertisement, whereas the public demeanour of Mrs. Humphry Ward is entirely beyond reproach. M. Bazin did not get through his interview without giving some precise statistical information as to the vast sale of his novels. I suppose that M. Bazin, Academician and apostle of literary correctitude, is just the type of official mediocrity that the Alliance Francaise was fated to invite to London as representative of French letters. My only objection to the activities of M. Bazin is that, not content with a golden popularity, he cannot refrain from sneering at genuine artists. Thus, to the interviewer, he referred to Stephane Mallarme as a "fumiste." No English word will render exactly this French slang; it may be roughly translated a practical joker with a trace of fraud. There may be, and there are, two opinions as to the permanent value of Mallarme's work, but there cannot be two informed and honest opinions as to his profound sincerity. It is indubitable that he had one aim—to produce the finest literature of which he was capable, and that to this aim he sacrificed everything else in his career. A charming spectacle, this nuncio of mediocrity and of the Academie Francaise coming to London to assert that a distinguished writer like Mallarme was a "fumiste"! If any one wishes to know what is thought of Mallarme by the younger French school, let him read the Mallarme chapter in Andre Gide's "Pretextes." In this very able book will be found also some wonderful reminiscences of Oscar Wilde.

* * * * *

Speaking of the respect which ought to be accorded to a distinguished artist, there is an excellent example of propriety in Dr. Levin Schuecking's review of Swinburne's "The Age of Shakespeare," which brings to a close the extraordinarily fine first number of the English Review. Dr. Schuecking shows that he is quite aware of the defects of manner which mark the book, but his own manner is the summit of courteous deference such as is due to one of the chief ornaments of English literature, and to a very old man. "A Man of Kent" (British Weekly), in commenting on the article, regrets its timidity, and refers to Swinburne as the "howling dervish" of criticism. This is the kind of lapse from decorum which causes the judicious not to grieve but to shrug their shoulders. Probably "A Man of Kent" would wish to withdraw it. I trust he is aware that "The Age of Shakespeare" is packed full of criticism whose insight and sensitiveness no other English critic could equal.


[24 Dec. '08]

In a recent number of the Athenaeum appeared a letter from Mr. E.H. Cooper, novelist and writer for children, protesting against the publication of the Queen's Gift-Book and the royally commanded cheap edition of "Queen Victoria's Letters" during the autumn season, and requesting their Majesties to forbear next year from injuring the general business of books as they have injured it this year. That some semi-official importance is attached to Mr. Cooper's statements is obvious from the fact that the Athenaeum (which is the organ of the trade as well as of learning) thought well to print his letter. But Mr. Cooper undoubtedly exaggerates. He states that the two books in question "have ruined the present publishing season rather more effectively than a Pan-European war could have done." Briefly, this is ridiculous. He says further: "Men and women who could trust to a sale of 5000 or 6000 copies of a novel, equally with authors who can command much larger sales, find that this year the sale of their annual novel has reached a tenth part of the usual figures." This also is ridiculous. The general view is that, while the season has been scarcely up to the average for fiction, it has not been below the average on the whole. But Mr. Cooper is nothing if not sweeping. A few days later he wrote to the Westminster Gazette about the House of Lords, and said: "I am open to wager a considerable sum that if the Government fights a general election next year they will win back all their lost by-elections and get an increased majority besides." Such rashness proves that grammar is not Mr. Cooper's only weak point.

* * * * *

It is a pity that Mr. Cooper's protest was not made with more moderation, for it was a protest worth making. The books of the two Queens have not ruined the season, nor have they reduced the sales of popular novels by 90 per cent.; but they have upset trade quite unnecessarily. The issue of "Queen Victoria's Letters" at six shillings was a worthy idea, but its execution was thoughtlessly timed. The volumes would have sold almost equally well at another period of the year. As for "Queen Alexandra's Gift-Book," I personally have an objection to the sale of books for charity, just as I have an objection to all indirect taxation and to the paying of rates out of gas profits. In such enterprises as the vast, frenzied pushing and booming of the "Gift-Book," the people who really pay are just the people who get no credit whatever. The public who buy get rich value for their outlay; the chief pushers and boomsters get an advertisement after their own hearts; and the folk who genuinely but unwillingly contribute, without any return of any kind, are authors whose market is disturbed and booksellers who, partly intimidated and partly from good nature, handle the favoured book on wholesale terms barely profitable. I will have none of Mr. Cooper's 90 per cent.; but I dare say that I have lost at the very least L10 owing to the "Gift-Book." That is to say, I have furnished L10 to the Unemployed Fund. I share Mr. Cooper's resentment. I do not want to give L10 to any fund whatever, and to force me to pay it to the Unemployed Fund, of all funds, is to insult my most sacred convictions. L10 wants earning. And the fact that L10 wants earning should be brought to the attention of Windsor and Greeba Castles.

* * * * *

Still, I am not depressed about the general cause of serious literature. Serious literature is kept alive by a few authors who, not owning motor-cars nor entertaining parties to dinner at the Carlton, find it possible and agreeable to maintain life and decency on the money paid down by very small bands of truly bookish readers. And these readers are not likely to deprive themselves completely of literature for ever in order to possess a collection of royal photographs. The injury to serious literature is slight and purely temporary.

* * * * *

[31 Dec. '08]

A melancholy Christmas, it seems! According to "a well-known member of the trade," the business is once again—the second time this year—about to crumble into ruins. This well-known member of the trade, who discreetly refrains from signing his name, writes to the Athenaeum in answer to Mr. E.H. Cooper's letter about the disastrous influence of royal books on the publishing season. According to him, Mr. Cooper is all wrong. The end of profitable publishing is being brought about, not by their Majesties, but once more by the authors and their agents. It appears that too many books are published. Authors and their agents have evidently some miraculous method of forcing publishers to publish books which they do not want to publish. I am not a member of the trade, but I should have thought that few things could be easier than not to publish a book. Presumably the agent stands over the publisher with a contract in one hand and a revolver in the other, and, after a glance at the revolver, the publisher signs without glancing at the contract. Secondly, it appears, authors and their agents habitually compel the publisher to pay too much, so that he habitually publishes at a loss. (Novels, that is.) I should love to know how the trick is done, but "a well-known member of the trade" does not go into details. He merely states the broad fact. Thirdly, the sevenpenny reprint of the popular novel is ruining the already ruined six-shilling novel. It is comforting to perceive that this wickedness on the part of the sevenpenny reprint cannot indefinitely continue. For when there are no six-shilling novels to reprint, obviously there can be no sevenpenny reprints of them. There is justice in England yet; but a well-known member of the trade has not noticed that the sevenpenny novel, in killing its own father, must kill itself. At any rate he does not refer to the point.

I have been young, and now am nearly old. Silvered is the once brown hair. Dim is the eye that on a time could decipher minion type by moonlight. But never have I seen the publisher without a fur coat in winter nor his seed begging bread. Nor do I expect to see such sights. Yet I have seen an author begging bread, and instead of bread, I gave him a railway ticket. Authors have always been in the wrong, and they always will be: grasping, unscrupulous, mercenary creatures that they are! Some of them haven't even the wit to keep their books from being burnt at the stake by the executioners of the National Vigilance Association. I wonder that publishers don't dispense with them altogether, and carry on unaided the great tradition of English literature. Anyhow, publishers have had my warm sympathy this Christmas-time. When I survey myself, as an example, lapped in luxury and clinking multitudinous gold coins extorted from publishers by my hypnotizing rascal of an agent; and when I think of the publishers, endeavouring in their fur coats to keep warm in fireless rooms and picking turkey limbs while filling up bankruptcy forms—I blush. Or I should blush, were not authors notoriously incapable of that action.



[7 Jan. '09]

The people who live in the eye of the public have been asked, as usual, to state what books during the past year have most interested them, and they have stated. This year I think the lists are less funny than usual. But some items give joy. Thus the Bishop of London has read Mr. A.E.W. Mason's "The Broken Road" with interest and pleasure. Mr. Frederic Harrison, along with two historical works, has read "Diana Mallory" with interest and pleasure. What an unearthly light such confessions throw upon the mentalities from which they emanate! As regards the Bishop of London I should not have been surprised to hear that he had read "Holy Orders" with interest and pleasure. But Mr. Frederic Harrison, one had naively imagined, possessed some rudimentary knowledge of the art which he has practised.

* * * * *

This confessing malady is infectious, if not contagious. I suppose that few persons can resist the microbe. I cannot. I feel compelled to announce to all whom it may not concern the books of the year which (at the moment of writing) seem to have most interested me—apart from my own, bien entendu: H.G. Wells's "New Worlds for Old." If it is not in its fiftieth thousand the intelligent masses ought to go into a month's sackcloth. "Nature Poems," by William H. Davies. This slim volume is quite indubitably wondrous. I won't say that it contains some of the most lyrical lyrics in English, but I will say that there are lyrics in it as good as have been produced by anybody at all in the present century. "A Poor Man's House," by Stephen Reynolds. Young Mr. Reynolds has already been fully accepted by the aforesaid intelligent masses, and I have no doubt that he is tolerably well satisfied with 1908. Nietzsche's "Ecce Homo." When this book gets translated into English (I have been reading it in Henri Albert's French translation) it will assuredly be laughed at. I would hazard that it is the most conceited book ever written. Take our four leading actor-managers; extract from them all their conceit; multiply that conceit by the self-satisfaction of Mr. F.E. Smith, M.P., when he has made a joke; and raise the result to the Kaiser-power, and you will have something less than the cube-root of Nietzsche's conceit in this the last book he wrote. But it is a great book, full of great things.


[14 Jan. '09]

The death of that distinguished draughtsman and painter, Henry Ospovat, who was among the few who can illustrate a serious author without insulting him, ought not to pass unnoticed. Because an exhibition of his caricatures made a considerable stir last year it was generally understood that he was destined exclusively for caricature. But he was a man who could do several things very well indeed, and caricature was only one of these things. In Paris he would certainly have made a name and a fortune as a caricaturist. They have more liberty there. Witness Rouveyre's admirable and appalling sketch of Sarah Bernhardt in the current Mercure de France. I never met Ospovat, but I was intimate with some of his friends while he was at South Kensington. In those days I used to hear "what Ospovat thought" about everything. He must have been listened to with great respect by his fellow-students. And sometimes one of them would come to me, with the air of doing me a favour (as indeed he was) and say: "Look here. Do you want to buy something good, at simply no price at all?" And I became the possessor of a beautiful sketch by Ospovat, while the intermediary went off with a look on his face as if saying: "Consider yourself lucky, my boy!" I used even to get Ospovat's opinions on my books, now and then very severe. I wanted to meet him. But I never could. The youths used to murmur: "Oh! It's no use you meeting him." They were afraid he was not spectacular enough. Or they desired to keep him to themselves, like a precious pearl. I pictured him as very frail, and very positive in a quiet way. He was only about thirty when he died last week.


[21 Jan. '09]

Although we know in our hearts that the French Academy is a foolish institution, designed and kept up for the encouragement of mediocrity, correct syntax, and the status quo, we still, also in our hearts, admire it and watch its mutations with the respect which we always give to foreign phenomena and usually withold from phenomena British. The last elected member is M. Francis Charmes. His sole title to be an Academician is that he directs La Revue des Deux Mondes, which pays good prices to Academic contributors. And this is, of course, a very good title. Even his official "welcomer," M. Henry Houssaye, did not assert that M. Charmes had ever written anything more important or less mortal than leaders and paragraphs in the Journal des Debats. M. Henry Houssaye was himself once a journalist. But he thought better of that, and became a historian. He has written one or two volumes which, without being unreadable, have achieved immense popularity. Stevenson used to delve in them for matter suitable to his romances. The French Academy now contains pretty nearly everything except first-class literary artists. Anatole France is a first-class literary artist and an Academician; but he makes a point of never going near the Academy. Perhaps the best writer among "devout" Academicians is Maurice Barres. Unhappily his comic-opera politics prove that in attempting Parnassus he mistook his mountain. Primrose Hill would have been more in his line. Still, he wrote "Le Jardin de Berenice": a novel which I am afraid to read again lest I should fail to recapture the first fine careless rapture it gave me.

* * * * *

Personally, I think our British Academy is a far more brilliant affair than the French. There is no nonsense about it. At least very little, except Mr. Balfour. I believe, from inductive processes of thought, that when Mr. Balfour gets into his room of a night he locks the door—and smiles. Not the urbane smile that fascinates and undoes even Radical journalists—quite another smile. Never could this private smile have been more subtle than on the night of the day when he permitted himself to be elected a member of the British Academy. Further, let it not be said that our Academy excludes novelists and journalists. We novelists are ably represented by Mr. Andrew Lang, author of "Prince Prigio" and part-author of "The World's Desire." And we journalists have surely an adequate spokesman in the person of the author of "Lost Leaders." Mr. Lang has also dabbled in history.


[28 Jan. '09]

The great Edgar Allen Poe celebration has passed off, and no one has been seriously hurt by the terrific display of fireworks. Some of the set pieces were pretty fair; for example, Mr. G.B. Shaw's in the Nation and Prof. C.H. Herford's in the Manchester Guardian. On the whole, however, the enthusiasm was too much in the nature of mere good form. If only we could have a celebration of Omar Khayyam, Tennyson, Gilbert White, or the inventor of Bridge, the difference between new and manufactured enthusiasm would be apparent. We have spent several happy weeks in conceitedly explaining to that barbaric race, the Americans, that in Poe they have never appreciated their luck. Yet we ourselves have never understood Poe. And we never shall understand Poe. It is immensely to our credit that, owing to the admirable obstinacy of Mr. J.H. Ingram, we now admit that Poe was neither a drunkard, a debauchee, nor a cynical eremite. This is about as far as we shall get. Poe's philosophy of art, as discovered in his essays and his creative work, is purely Latin and, as such, incomprehensible and even naughty to the Saxon mind. To the average bookish Englishman Poe means "The Pit and the Pendulum," and his finest poetry means nothing at all. Tell that Englishman that Poe wrote more beautiful lyrics than Tennyson, and he will blankly put you down as mad. (So shall I.)

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