Books and Persons was previously published as articles under Bennett's pseudonym, Jacob Tonson in the magazine The New Age. He wrote these essays in Paris, London, Switzerland and the Forest of Fontainebleau, covering such topics as "Ugliness in Fiction," "The Novel of the Season," "German Expansion," and "Joseph Conrad."
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Books and Persons
WILFRED WHITTEN'S PROSE
[_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 archæologist, 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!"
UGLINESS IN FICTION
[_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 EdinburghReviewer. 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.
LETTERS OF QUEEN VICTORIA
[_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 £7500 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 £5592 14s. 2d. Thirdly, he said that his own profit was £600. Hence £600 is the half of £5592 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. £950 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 £350 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 £7500 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'Intermédiaire_ (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 £5592 14s. 2d. from Mr. John Murray for their Titanic labours.
October 23, 1857.
"I think, sir, that you are in error as to Messrs. Lévy's method of doing business. Messrs. Lévy buy for 400 francs [£16] 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 Poé. We do not work in this way. We buy for 200 francs (£8) 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. Lévy, his book would already have brought him in 1000 francs (£40); during the four years that Messrs. Lévy 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 dévoué,
* * * * *
We now know that Flaubert made £16 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 Lévy 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!
WORDSWORTH'S SINGLE LINES
[_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 Sélincourt'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 Molière. 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.
NOVELISTS AND AGENTS
[_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 £50 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.
THE NOVEL OF THE SEASON
[_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'éloquence 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.
[_22 Aug. '08_]
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