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This ebook was produced by: Dr Andrew Templeton
What is our span of days? Seventy years it lasts, Eighty years, if we count among the heroes.
Thus in an earlier age wrote Moses the Man of God, and since then the millenniums have brought little change. For the idea that our expectation of life is much longer than our fathers' is based on a fallacy due to the misreading of statistics. The 'expectation' is not for the old, but for the young who a few generations ago would have died in infancy, and for the middle-aged who can now reckon to survive diseases that would formerly have proved fatal. The truth is not that the old live longer but that more live to be old.
That being so, I need not see any premature onset of senility in the temptation that has been growing upon me to look backwards. By the time this book appears in print I shall be in my seventieth year, and as I have no reason to believe that I 'count myself among the heroes', it does not seem as if any forward gaze will reach very far. So I do not think I need feel ashamed of looking behind me, but unlike so many I wish for no return. There is no nostalgia in my contemplation of the past. I had what everyone would call a happy childhood, with a comfortable home, kind parents and many friends. But I would never want to be a child again—ignorant and dependent. Nor would I live through the silliness and suffering of my early love affairs for the sake of their brief ecstasies. Even my first literary successes—thrilling as they were to my inexperience—had about them that same 'unfinished' air that makes for foolishness. As a child I was less happy than as a young woman and as a young woman less happy than when middle age, which in my youth had meant the end, revealed itself instead as a beginning.
But looking back can be a dangerous habit with those who find it easy to appear in print. For it often leads to an autobiography. Indeed this is a temptation not always avoided by the middle-aged or even by the young. We are all liable to think that we are as interesting to other people as we are to ourselves. Some twenty years ago I made my present situation worse, for I wrote an autobiographical essay which used up all the chief events of my life, with the result that now I have achieved the proper age for such writing I have nothing left to write about. My marriage, my home and my religion were all disposed of in 1937, and as I have since then changed neither husband, house nor faith, it is difficult to see what I could possibly add to the story. My life has not been uneventful, but its events have been personal and private; I have travelled but I have never gone off the map; I have met people who were famous and people who were interesting, but have seldom found those qualities combined. So events, places and people seem equally barred.
Yet if I fail to resist this temptation to write about the past what am I to write? Shall I write about the animals I have known and kept? No, that will not do; for a well-known author has already written his life in dogs and a well-known actor has written his in cats. Shall I make as it were a gastronomic tour of the past, starting in the Creamery at Hastings with the paradise I tasted in chocolate éclairs and ending in the Chapon Fin at Bordeaux with a dinner of the Wine and Food Society? But a lifetime's gastronomy served up in sixty or seventy thousand words might well give the reader indigestion; for food in print, unless very lightly and briefly served, can be as heavy and clogging as a Victorian plum duff. That is food for the body. What about food for the mind—a lifetime's reading! There is something more promising here.
In the course of a reasonably long life I must have read many hundreds of books, some of which I have forgotten, but most of which I remember, and all of which, remembered or forgotten, must have left some mental deposit, so that in a sense I am mentally as much the books I have read as I am chemically the food I have eaten. Their sequence too is very much the sequence of my life. Certain of them have marked my way like milestones and others have lit it up like lamps. In writing about them I am not merely taking the reader into a library, but along the road which I myself have travelled through the years and telling what, though it cannot strictly be called an autobiography, is nevertheless my own story.
The 'all' in the title will naturally be taken as relative. Unlike those authors who have seen their lives in terms of dogs or cats, I cannot pretend to an accurate count. Apart from the books I have forgotten, I have for reasons of safety avoided those whose authors I know personally; nor do I include any books that I myself have written, except when their connexion with those I have not makes their mention inevitable. Few authors would take the trouble to write if they did not think their books better than they probably are; on the other hand a modest assessment of one's work is always dangerous, for the public will take for granted that one has said the utmost in its favour and mark it some way below one's estimate. In any case such books are output rather than intake—in fact some might rudely call them waste products—and therefore cannot be said to have in any degree made me what I am, though like the scattered trail in a paper chase they may show the way I am going.
'Come hither, Charles. Come to Mamma. Sit on Mamma's lap.'
Those were the opening words of the book in which I taught myself to read—a book written long before my birth or even my mother's by that pioneer bluestocking, Mrs. Anna Letitia Barbauld. I cannot remember the title, nor can I tell how it had come into my nursery, but I found it fascinating and a great improvement on the Royal Reader in which my nurse had been trying for so long to make me spell out 'The ox is in the box', 'The cat is on the mat' and other similar pieces of information. The book about Charles was full of information. Indeed it contained little else—I remember that I hunted in vain for a story—but it was exciting to be able to put into practice the knowledge I had so slowly and painfully acquired, and the fact that I was not totally illiterate at the age of seven may be attributed at least in part to Charles and his Mamma.
I do not see why I should have started my adventures with what I now realize must have been a most uninteresting book, for I had many others to choose from. The reason was, no doubt, that there were plenty of grown-up people at hand to read to me out of Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty or The Little Duke, whereas no one but myself was interested in poor Charles. Indeed when I had had more practice and could venture by myself into deeper waters, I abandoned him, and of his subsequent fate I know nothing. But I have never forgotten those three opening phrases.
It has been said that children's books arrived in numbers only with the twentieth century. This I am sure is quite untrue. Not only were the classical writers for childhood and youth—Lewis Carroll, Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa Alcott, Charlotte Yonge—all writing in Queen Victoria's reign, but there was also a host of more obscure authors whose names would mostly be unknown today, but who had nevertheless in a marked degree the gift of entertaining the young. Furthermore there was in my childhood a number of beautiful picture books, infinitely superior to most of the stuff that passes for such at the present time. In some the pictures could be made to stand up stereoscopically on the page, in others a mechanism not unlike that of a Venetian blind would at the pull of a cord reveal an entirely new picture, lovely and surprising. We do not see such wonders now. All I will grant the present century—in this country at least, for America seems ahead of us here—are the works of Beatrix Potter and Kathleen Hale.
These two writers and artists—for both are both—introduce another difference between children's books then and now. In my childhood children's books were almost invariably about other children; today the protagonists seem mostly to be animals. It is true that we had books about animals in our nursery, but we had them 'straight'. Black Beauty is the factual story of a real horse, but Peter Rabbit is a little boy. The same applies to all the Beatrix Potter stories. It is slightly modified in the French Babar the Elephant, but even more strongly emphasized in those two charming American books that have delighted my second childhood—The Little Fur Family and The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown.
The reason for this substitution may lie in the gap that civilization is persistently widening between men and animals. Children, so much more primitive than their elders, long for the older, closer relationship. This no doubt could be most easily achieved by tales in which boys and girls live much as animals do—The Jungle Books have always been popular with the young—but too many tales of children free from all the inhibitions imposed by society would hardly be to adult advantage. So a compromise is made, and instead of children returning to the jungle, the inhabitants of that lost, happy land are properly trained and tamed for admission to the nursery. The folk tales of nearly all primitive peoples are about personified animals and to restore them to the nursery bookshelf is to restore an archetype.
Certainly my sister and I would have welcomed them on ours, for though we delighted in Black Beauty and had another animal friend in Cadichon, the hero of Madame de Ségur's Memoirs d'un Ane, both these behaved strictly as animals and emphasized the gap between us. That we were aware of this gap is proved by our efforts to bridge it in other ways. What we could not find on the bookshelf we sought in the toy cupboard. It was always a disappointment to my mother that we did not care for dolls, but played instead with those shapeless woolly animals that are nowadays given only to babies. The Teddy Bear had not yet appeared, and our collection contained no species that could be identified by any naturalist. It was known as the 'Lodge' and functioned as an erratic establishment for orphan children run by two very quarrelsome Kind Friends. Its origins are lost in infancy but it persisted to my mother's grief and shame until the shame at least became my own at the age of sixteen. I then heard unmoved that profiting by the failure of our interest she had burned the unhygienic lot in the kitchen fire. My sister, young enough to be afflicted, was also young enough to find comfort in Peter Rabbit.
Apart from this deficiency, our nursery was particularly well stocked with books. For not only did we have our own, but Mona and I were heirs of two other children's libraries. Both my father and mother had been married before they met and each had one daughter. Dulcie was eighteen years older than I and Thea twelve.
The former's collection had been purged of its infantile contents and consisted mainly of such classics as Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Mrs. Ewing's tales, Charlotte Yonge's historical romances, the Little Women series and Susan Coolidge's Katy books. Thea's, on the other hand were completely juvenile and at first very much our favourites—with one important exception. My delight in Alice in Wonderland, which I feel with increasing strength every time I read it, dates from the very dawn of understanding. It is surely a wonderful achievement to have written a book that does not lose a spark of its magic in the re-reading of sixty years. As I grew up I came to prefer Through the Looking-Glass—the adventures and characters are more significant and I am increasingly amazed at the brilliance of its construction—but my first introduction was to Wonderland, by means of a version specially prepared for small children and called The Nursery Alice. This had the Tenniel illustrations, but they were all in colour, and the book must have been an expensive one for it was always kept in the drawing-room. I remember the panic with which I saw my mother lock the drawing-room door when a thief was supposed to be about, for I felt sure that his main design was to steal my Alice.
I was not at all a bookish child, infinitely preferring toys—the disreputable 'Lodge' and such boyish playthings as bricks, soldiers and horses—and I think one reason for my love of Alice in Wonderland was that it never was quite a book to me but a dream which reflected in a measure my own dreams. I did not care much for fantasy in its pure form, that is in fairy-tales. I liked my dreams to touch earth, and Alice was no fairy princess but a little girl like myself. I think some of the magic lies in that.
The only other books in Dulcie's select library which I enjoyed were Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School. I read these again and again and I find that they too bear re-reading in adult life. Mrs. Ewing, as represented by Jackanapes and A Flat Iron for a Farthing I never cared for. I must have lacked the measure of literary taste necessary for appreciation of their quieter charm. As for Charlotte Yonge, I found her too adult, with the exception of The Little Duke, which I read many times before I was old enough for The Heir of Redclyffe. My failure ever to read Little Women must be put down to more humbling causes. I found the March family much too good for me. I liked children to be naughty—to 'get into scrapes' as we called it then—so that I need not inevitably feel inferior to those I read about. The unselfishness of the Marches in giving their breakfast to feed the poor, and sacrificing their Christmas presents to help the Union Army was more than I could bear. They had performed actions of which I was incapable and I hated them for it. I never got beyond Jo's sacrifice of her hair.
My sister Thea's library was of a different nature. The only classics it contained were two stories by Mrs. Molesworth—Two Little Waifs and The Tapestry Room—neither of which appealed to me. But there were various obscure books out of which my literary life was built up between the ages of five and nine. I wonder who remembers today a writer for children called 'Brenda'. She was writing in the eighteen-seventies, for Thea's books dated back to that decade and were illustrated with pictures of children wearing clothes quite unlike mine—funny, straight little dresses sashed almost as low as the knee where they ended in a deep, frilly flounce.
'Brenda' certainly had the gift of writing for very small children, and our nursery life was enriched by characters whose doings filled us with breathless interest, though they were only children like ourselves, living lives not very different from our own. There certainly was no unhealthy sensationalism in their adventures. Georgie was sent to bed for frightening the pony and breaking a basket of eggs in Lottie's Visit to Grandmamma, and the same fate befell Lottie for running away with the baby's perambulator in Georgie's Visit to London. These were the high spots of both stories, and I sometimes wonder what modern children would make of them. We were both excited and appalled, for Lottie and Georgie were real people to us, as were Johnny and Benny in the same writer's A Pair of Pickles, and Trix and Pussy, the heroines of A Six Years Darling and Only Five. There were also Milly and Olly, but these were not 'Brenda's' children, owing their existence to no less a writer than Mrs. Humphry Ward. The book—the only children's book she wrote, I believe—was named after them and told the story of a wonderful summer holiday in the Lake District, which filled us with envy, because we had never been further north than Yorkshire. Children, even today, love stories of visits and holidays, and it is notable that five out of our six favourites were concerned with visits to the seaside, to relations, and to farms.
There was also another very different set of books, which we called 'books about poor children'. They must have been an exclusively Victorian phenomenon, for I know of no successors. Certainly we cannot imagine the children of the nineteen-thirties being regaled with sad tales of struggle and starvation in the Distressed Areas. It might have been good for them if they had. But the last decades of the nineteenth century abounded in such chronicles, and some of them are still remembered, at least by name—Christie's Old Organ, Jessica's First Prayer. . . . There was too much preaching and virtue in these for me really to enjoy them. But once again 'Brenda' was active, and gave us Froggy's Little Brother, the tale of two little boys who lived alone in a garret, supported by Froggy's activities as a crossing-sweeper. Here there was no top-heavy moralizing, but the thrilling story of a free and glorious life lived by two glamorous beings privileged far beyond children like ourselves—which I gather was not the impression the author meant to convey.
Indeed I sometimes wonder what was the intention of so many tales of poverty written for the nursery and schoolroom, Saturday's Bairn, Scamp and I, City Sparrows, Cripple Jess. . . . I can remember these and many others and we enjoyed them all. They may have been written to stir our compassion, but I have already shown that as such they signally failed. Poverty was too discreetly handled to create disgust—I remember no scenes of squalor, at least of what appeared as squalor to a very young mind—and its existence was so completely taken for granted that it roused no sense of injustice. Indeed, these stories were to us in the nature of Westerns, opening an unknown, free and dangerous world to the imagination, revealing lives of excitement and adventure which perhaps we would rather read about than share.
At the time, of course, slumming was in fashion and the well-meaning authors may have hoped to groom a new generation of district visitors. In a London parish which in 1924 boasted only one parish worker there had once been ninety. No doubt the Victorian conscience was stirring uneasily at the half-knowledge of the slime on which its comfortable world was founded, but it seems strange that its uneasiness should have been expressed mainly in books for children. Dickens wrote of the slums and so a little later did George Gissing and Arthur Morrison, but their output was small compared to that which found its way into the nursery, with unforeseen reactions.
Another puzzle in Victorian books for children is the constant intrusion of the death wish. There must have been some psychological reason for the very high death-rate in the stories I read as a little girl. How many of the children or humanized animals in fiction today are allowed to die? I venture to say none—not even the bad ones; and in my nursery stories it was the good children who died. I have sometimes wondered if the complete sterilization of death in modern books for children may not be responsible for its more unpleasant serving up in what are known as Horror Comics; but against this I must set my own reactions of fear and misery. So often I enjoyed reading about some little girl or boy and then they—died. It is true that they did not die till the end of the book, but that made things no better, for I read my books over and over again and if I knew that the chief character was doomed to die, the whole tale was, as it were, read in the condemned cell, even though the last harrowing pages had been gummed together by my nurse.
'Brenda' did not often offend in this way, indeed I have only one casualty to lay at her door and that I did not particularly object to. My attitude to death in fiction was strictly personal, and children I did not like could die as much as their creators pleased. I did not like Little Willy, hero of a sanctimonious work called Sir Evelyn's Charge by an author whose name I have forgotten. Willy got into trouble with his elders for refusing to read a newspaper on Sunday and finally died of consumption. I regarded him with the deepest contempt and loathing, for he ought to have known that the only secular activities forbidden on Sunday were sewing and playing the piano. By adding to the prohibitions of the decalogue Willy had shown himself a priggish ignoramus who richly deserved all that came to him, including his untimely end.
Very differently did I view the death of Little Peter, eponymous hero of a story by Lucas Malet. Like Mrs. Humphry Ward this popular novelist of the eighteen-nineties wrote one children's book, and a very good book it was except for the end. I still think Little Peter need not have died. It is true that he had been out all night in the snow, but he had not been alone; he had been with his mother and big brother who would have kept him warm, and he was put to bed directly he reached home. The worst he need have suffered was a severe cold. But he died, and I wept, and the last pages of the book were gummed together.
Another book that had certain of its pages gummed together—and I think it would have been as well if the whole had been similarly treated—was a work entitled Original Poems for Infant Minds. I cannot tell how this came into my possession, for in spite of its title it was a most unsuitable book for a child. Dr. Watts's hymns, which an exasperated governess once read to me as a warning, were jovial in comparison. The cover displayed nothing worse than a simpering little girl holding up two cherries, but the contents were appalling. Fortunately I can clearly remember only two items, one was a poem about a little boy who burnt a mouse's nest, while the second was the long and harrowing recital of a dying cat. To these I attribute at least in part my almost pathological horror of suffering in animals. The pages were duly gummed together, but their contents being in verse still survive in a memory which has lost the sufferings of Little Peter.
So far I have dealt only with books that, excepting Mrs. Barbauld's, might have been found in any nursery of the period. But there was another set that I consider more unusual. Two books that I read and re-read many times before I went to school were Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim's Progress, and lest I should be thought unduly precocious, let me add that both these masterpieces had been reduced to words of one syllable. I have no idea how or by whom this feat was performed and I cannot recall a single phrase from either. But in each case I thought I was reading the original version and they both stood very high in my list of preferences, in spite of the fact that they were about only grown-up people.
Of the two I preferred The Pilgrim's Progress. I had always been a religious child—providing indeed an illustration of Baron von Hügel's theory that the religious sense appears in children before any sense of conduct or morality—and though of course Bunyan's masterpiece is a morality I did not read it as such, but as a book of adventure, embodying my aspirations at their most concrete. It had indeed some of the glamour of holy writ as mediated through such collections of Bible stories as Line upon Line and The Peep of Day. Though I did not actually regard it as factual it embodied facts—facts that I knew and apprehended with all the literalness of a child. Robinson Crusoe, on the other hand, was only a story—a most exciting story, but staking no claims to the Kingdom of Heaven. It was not till I was nearly grown up that I read these two books in their original integrity. The Pilgrim's Progress came first, in a beautifully illustrated edition belonging to my father. Robinson Crusoe came later, and curiously enough answered more to my expectations—possibly because it had never worn that numinous cloud which rarely survives childhood. Neither book did I ever read again.
A more surprising favourite in the nursery was Dr. Smith's Smaller Classical Mythology. I think this must have been an old school-book of my sister Thea's, for it made no attempt to sugar its information and it is hard to see why I found it so enthralling. It may have been because it gave me a comfortable sense of superiority in the field of knowledge. Dr. Smith's approach was from the Greek, and it pleased me to think that I knew the old gods by their proper names of Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite and so on, while the grown-ups round me displayed their ignorance by talking of Jupiter, Juno and Venus. This was another book that I read many times, with the result that I went to school with a more thorough knowledge of Olympian theology than is usual in a little girl of nine.
Another subject in which I was better equipped than my schoolfellows was French—the speaking of it, that is to say, for I could neither write nor spell. My sister and I were still very young when the death of our nurse's father compelled her to leave us, and my mother took advantage of the situation to engage as her successor a French bonne. My mother was of French descent, via the Channel Islands. Her father had been entirely French-speaking, but on coming to Edinburgh to start in business as a wine merchant he had met and married a Highland lady who not only did not speak a word of it herself but would not let him do so. As a result my mother knew only the halting French she had learned at school. But she was determined to do better for her children, though she told me later that if ever she wished to be thoroughly revenged on her worst enemy she would advise her to engage a French nurse.
Considering the number of kind and intelligent Frenchwomen I have met since, eminently fitted to have the care of children, it is hard to understand why Mona and I had to endure so many of a very different sort. I think my mother must have gone to the wrong place to engage them and been too little aware of the differences between French and English society to make a wise choice. At first we seemed to be looking for the Nanny type, which does not exist in France; but when Anna in her white frilled cap proved too emotional for the nursery, she moved up in the social scale and gave us a very juvenile 'mademoiselle', only to find this species more temperamental still. My sister and I spent two uneasy years, distressed and bewildered by tears and tantrums we had never seen before except in people of our own age. It was not till I was twelve that we really knew tranquillity.
But we knew French; and I think that on the whole the game was worth the candle. For not only is it a great advantage to be able to speak the language in many countries besides France, but an almost lifelong course of bilingual reading has given me much enlightenment and many pleasures.
It started characteristically with Les Malheurs de Sophie by the Comtesse de Ségur. What a book! I do not know if there has been an English translation, but if not the reason may well be that Sophie's misdeeds—it is mere camouflage to call them malheurs—might appear even more fascinatingly wicked in English than they did in French. As a sinner she was enterprising and highly precocious—I can still remember the shock I had when half-way through the book her mother said: 'Tu vas bientôt avoir tes quatre ans.' Only three, and she had committed more crimes than Mona and I had thought of in twice her years! There may have been doubts in her own country as to her position as the heroine—for she was certainly a heroine—of a book for children, for her successor in the Bibliothèque Rose was Les Petites Filles Modèles.
With these no doubt her creator hoped to redress the balance between vice and virtue, and she was such an admirable writer for children that she achieved this end without being a whit less entertaining. Camille and Madeleine were certainly good little girls, but their goodness was not like Little Willy's, and was soon overlaid by a series of adventures as exciting as anything that ever happened to Sophie. Moreover, they did not die. I doubt if any English writer of the period could have resisted the temptation to kill one or both of them, but they finished their story in perfect health. Children in the Bibliothèque Rose—of which almost twenty volumes brought a blush to the nursery bookshelf—did not die, unless they were very naughty, when of course nobody minded. No tears were shed when 'Héloïse mourut etouflée dans son corset,' for she was a vain, silly little girl who richly deserved such a fate; and though Gribouille in La Soeur de Gribouille was intended for a 'nice' character, we did not like him because he was half-witted and had put the parrot in the middle of the dinner table instead of a vase of flowers. He had what I feel sure his creator considered a very beautiful and touching death-bed, but unlike the death-bed of Little Peter the pages describing it did not have to be gummed together.
Other pages of Madame de Ségur's works, however, had that fate, though for a very different reason. My mother could never grow used to the French lack of reticence with regard to natural functions, and a certain adventure at the end of Les Vacances was well and truly sealed. Mona and I thought her unnecessarily prudish. Two years of a French nursery may not have done much good to our nervous systems but it had removed a whole set of inhibitions.
There is one last section of the nursery bookshelf that must be examined if only because it contained not the books we liked but those we were supposed to like. Such of our other books as were not an inheritance were gifts, and on the whole we accepted them uncritically. But in two respects grown-up people were tiresome and obstinate. They would give us fairytales and they would give us nonsense. Every Christmas we were forced into the scornful acceptance of the Green, the Yellow, the Red, or the Pink Fairy Book. These collections were edited by Andrew Lang and I do not doubt that they exhibited both scholarship and enterprise. But they bored and humiliated us. We did not believe in fairies—no use appealing to us to save the life of Tinker Bell, had Peter Pan been then in existence—and we suspected as frauds those of our elders who gushed about them. I do not know to what our scepticism was due, nor why we had such an intense love of the factual and commonplace that we were unable to enjoy anything that we knew existed only in imagination. All I know is that the only fairy stories that roused any pleasure or interest were such well-worn nursery legends as Cinderella and Red Riding Hood.
As for the classical writers, Hans Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, I must acknowledge that as a very small child I enjoyed some of their tales—such as did not frighten me. Hans Andersen gave me of the two the greater pleasure and the greater distress. The former came from the story of Gerda and Kay, the latter from The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, which frankly appalled me. I think this reaction was due to the reverse of scepticism, to an uneasy feeling that some of those things might be true. But whether as believers or unbelievers, my sister and I did not like fairy-stories.
Nor did we like nonsense—that is nonsense as set forth in Edward Lear's Nonsense Books. These had been presented to us by a dear old spinster lady, who thought children would be sure to like the quaint pictures and funny rhymes. But sense and nonsense are matters on which the nursery and the drawing-room are not agreed. A great deal of what grown-up people called common sense seemed nonsense to me. On the other hand much that I considered perfectly sensible would be treated as nonsense. It has pleased me greatly to discover in later life that at least one question I used to ask, far from being nonsensical, was highly intelligent. When my elders told me, as they sometimes did, that God was called omnipotent because He could do everything, I would at once ask, 'Could He make a thing happen and yet at the same time not happen?' The 'don't talk nonsense' that inevitably followed could never have come from a theologian or religious philosopher. But my elders were not theologians or philosophers, and that was all the answer I ever had.
When it came to grown-up nonsense the situation was reversed. Lear's Nonsense Books at the present day are still found enjoyable by adults who like to have their minds tickled, but I maintain that they are quite unsuited to the literal approaches of childhood. My sister and I were obliged to accept them with pretty words of thanks and were smilingly encouraged to read them, but I know that the reaction on my side at least was of fear and disgust. The pictures seemed to me ugly and badly drawn and some of the verses were frightening. That about the old person of Rheims who suffered from horrible dreams, so that to keep him awake they fed him with cake, had for me an especial dread. Bad dreams were one of the chief terrors of my nursery life, and that anyone should suffer from them so severely that he preferred not to sleep at all—and I had been told that anyone who did not sleep would die—seemed to me a matter of starkest tragedy. Even the cake that kept him awake was no amelioration, for the poor old person would be sure to die before long, or else have to go back to his bad dreams.
I do not suggest that this reaction was typical of most children; for it was that of an exceptionally nervous and sensitive little girl. Tougher spirits no doubt would not have quailed, nor I imagine would little boys. I never met in those days the much pleasanter Book of Nonsense, parts of which would certainly have pleased me, though most of it would have been beyond my comprehension. I have read this book with the greatest enjoyment many times since I grew up. But my opinion of the two Nonsense Books remains the same.
They were the van-couriers of that ugliness which was to invade the nursery—mercifully not until after I had left it—with the Golliwog. My sister was young enough to be given a copy of The Adventures of a Golliwog and Two Dutch Dolls, but I had reached an age when I could feel detached from what I despised. I had never cared for Dutch dolls, for black dolls, for Japanese dolls, or even for dolls dressed as boys. My dolls must be pretty, lacy and frilly, for the only thing I liked about them was their clothes—they had no personalities. It is true that the 'Lodge' had not been notably pretty, lacy or frilly—indeed some of its beloved inmates might well have been termed more repulsive than any golliwog. But unlike the dolls they were all personalities, and their ugliness was the result of age and use and cherishing. A child who can cherish a golliwog—ugliness both designed and meaningless—must have had some damage done to its perceptions.
I went to school when I was nine years old, to an establishment called the Hastings and St. Leonards Ladies' College, which was only a few yards from our home. Both my half-sisters had attended it, my younger sister was to follow, and my father was a member of the Governors' Council, so it might have been considered very much in the family. Certainly I went to it without fear or reluctance, and in the same spirit left it nine years later, having received practically my entire education there.
None of the mistresses had a degree or its equivalent, but they were women of culture and intelligence and most of them had besides the priceless gift of making lessons interesting. I do not remember ever having been bored in class. The day started with prayers at nine, at a quarter to eleven there was a short recess, and the school broke up finally at a quarter to one, so the pupils—or students as they were officially called—could hardly be considered over-driven. Those who liked could return to the college in the afternoon for an hour and a half's 'preparation', but it was thought better for me to spend my afternoon out of doors and do my homework later. Even in the sixth form this was not supposed to take more than two hours, so it may be said that learning was less of a rod than a wand waved lightly over me.
I still possess all or nearly all my school prizes. They are a handsome set of volumes, bound in calf and stamped with the college arms in gold. The spines are ridged with gold and the pages marbled. But the contents for the most part need the original thrill of triumph to make them readable. My first prize was called Half Hours Underground and there is also Half Hours in the Holy Land, though this was never legitimately mine, representing a secret swop with an unlucky child who had been given it twice. Tales of the Great and Brave by Margaret Fraser Tytler seems a better choice for a little girl and was the first to give me any pleasure as a book and not only as a prize. As I grew older there were more of these, and in the end I was allowed to choose my own prizes. Milton's Collected Poems and Dante's Divine Comedy are the result.
A wide gulf yawns between the nursery bookshelf and Dante's masterpiece. It is filled with eight years of mixed reading, occasionally guided but mostly spontaneous, moving slowly from the fortuitous to the planned, from mere inclination to conscientious effort. When I first went to school I read the popular school stories of my day. The principal author for schoolgirls then was a Mrs. L. T. Meade and I imagine that her tales were an earlier, more inhibited version of what may still be in vogue. There was probably less sensation in them. Cheating at examinations was the standard crime, and instead of the crooks or spies which I believe are these days allowed to vary the charms of school life she introduced a succession of wild Irish girls. Wild Kitty is the only one of these that I remember by name, but there were others, though they were all very much alike. They all were wild, all had hearts of gold, all spoke with a brogue that would have roused comment in a Dublin slum, and begobbed and begorrahed their way through the conventions of an English girls' school to a final apotheosis. This character at one time showed signs of becoming standard, for a successor of Mrs. Meade, Mrs. Champion de Crespigny, entertained my younger sister with Pixie O'Shaugnessy and More about Pixie. But I doubt if the strain continues.
L. T. Meade also wrote detective stories or shockers as they were called then. Of her performance in that line I am unable to judge, but quite my favourite serial in Little Folks was Beyond the Blue Mountains, her solitary incursion into allegory, which gave me the double delight I had found in The Pilgrim's Progress—a story both of this world and the next. Oddly enough it is to Mrs. Meade that I owe my decision to become an author. I had always been fond of telling myself stories, but it was too much effort to write them down, and my ambitions lay in quite another direction. It was my mother who, when after my first violin lesson, I announced my intention to become a famous musician, offered perhaps in self-defence the alternative suggestion that I should become a famous author 'like L. T. Meade'. The idea, thus embodied, appealed to me and from that moment my goal was switched.
L. T. Meade is fairly representative of my reading standards until I was well into my teens. I had no idea of a book as literature; it was a story, or else a collection of interesting information like Dr. Smith's Smaller Classical Mythology. Of course, like most girls, I read and enjoyed boys' books. The popular writer for boys in those days—the masculine counterpart of L. T. Meade—was G. A. Henty, and to him I probably owe my developing interest in history. His tales all had an historical background, against which the hero—modern except for an occasional 'prithee'—played his part. The wars between England and Scotland, between England and France, the struggles of early Indian occupation—With Clive in India is one of the few titles I remember—were all laid under contribution, no doubt to the improvement of my stock of knowledge if not of my literary style. Another writer for boys whom I greatly favoured was Talbot Baines Reid, whose Fifth Form at St. Dominic's is still, I believe, regarded as a minor classic of boys' school life. But I knew nothing of Billy Bunter and his associates, never having even seen the Boy's Own Paper. Dean Farrar's Eric, or Little by Little was presented to me by the same kind old lady who had presented the Nonsense Books, and read with an almost equal distaste.
One book for boys, perhaps my favourite, survived from the nursery bookshelf, where it had remained unread until I was old enough to enjoy it. I still maintain that Captain Marryat's Masterman Ready is one of the best adventure stories ever written. There is too much preaching in it, of course, and the end is overshadowed by that same Victorian death wish which had already spoilt so many stories for me. But this practical and credible account of family life on a desert island—written as a counterblast to the impossible adventures of the Swiss Family Robinson (a book I have never read)—had that basis of common sense and reality which even at ten years old I was beginning to look for in a book. The same author's Mr. Midshipman Easy was a disappointment, being altogether too adult and masculine for my taste.
All this time my reading had been, I will not say unsupervised, for my mother once stopped me reading the serial in Home Chat, but unguided. I read what I could find to read. Though I was not at all a bookish child, and if given the choice of a present would always choose a toy, it was inevitable, especially as I grew older, that books should sometimes be given to me, whereupon I read them. There were also occasionally loans from my school friends.
I had not yet reached a class where literature was taught as a subject, and the classics were unknown to me, except for a few names. I was used to seeing all the bright backs of the Waverley Novels in my sister Dulcie's bookcase, but I would not have dreamed of taking one out to read. It is perhaps strange that I should have had no suggestions from any of my schoolmistresses. I remember, however, a day when every girl in my form found herself confronted by a sheet of paper on which she was asked to write the titles of the twenty books she liked best. I never heard the reason for this inquiry, but think it must have come from an outer source—from some investigator of the child mind trying to collect material. All I know is that I sat in perplexity opposite my blank sheet, calling up all the titles I could remember and realizing that I should have to go back ignominiously far into the nursery before I could produce twenty, until I saw that the girl on either side of me had headed her list with the Bible. Whereupon I immediately did the same.
This was totally untrue. I did not enjoy reading the Bible as I had enjoyed reading Bible stories in Line upon Line. I possessed a Bible, but I found it incomprehensible, as I am sure did my companions. It is true that I regarded it with a certain amount of respect and disapproved on moral grounds of the transaction by which my sister Mona had traded away hers for half an Easter egg. But its appearance at the head of my list was a rank piece of insincerity, and if it also appeared—as it probably did—at the head of all the others, the inquiry revealed less youthful piety than youthful humbug.
The Pilgrim's Progress—which I still thought I had read as written—followed more naturally, but except for the Alice books and Robinson Crusoe, my list must have been a sorry exhibition of the second- and third-rate in schoolgirl reading. Though I meant to be an author myself some day I had no literary standards whatsoever, and apart from lessons, never opened a book except to while away an idle hour. It was not till I was twelve or thirteen that an older girl lent me Rider Haggard's Montezuma's Daughter and for the first time I experienced something more than entertainment. Indeed this gallant story bewitched me, and for years I thought it the finest book that had ever been written. It gave a new life to history and to strange, remote places, and incidentally it whetted my literary appetite with a taste for better things.
There was a room in the college known as the Library, but I was half-way through my schooldays before I discovered this to be more than a name. I found then a small number of books on loan, and as there was no subscription—my income was only threepence a week and out of that I had to support the college mission—I decided to avail myself of the chances it offered.
These were not very wide. I do not suppose that the collection amounted to more than seventy or eighty volumes, brought together by chance rather than choice. Most were ordinary schoolgirl or schoolboy stuff, but there were some notable exceptions and from these were laid the reading trails that I have followed all my life.
The three books which I remember most clearly were The Heroes of Asgaard by an author whose name, unlike that of his work, has been lost, The Shadow of Dante by Christina Rossetti, and—this certainly seems odd—Sir Charles Grandison.
I never could make up my mind whether I preferred the gods of Asgaard or the gods of Olympus. I certainly preferred the clear, simple style of Dr. Smith's Classical Mythology. The Asgaard book was written rather preciously and even in those days made me feel slightly sick. But though the manner had its drawbacks the matter had none. These tales of the Scandinavian gods, of Odin, Freya, Thor, Baldur, Loki, thrilled me not only in themselves but in their contrast with Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Pallas Athene, my friends on Mount Olympus. On the whole I preferred the Greek gods, because they were less remote than those of Asgaard, but the latter had in their stories, in their origins and above all in their end a sort of painfulness that, as I emerged from childhood, I was beginning to find agreeable in my contemplation of life. The Götterdämmerung, with its return of all things, even the gods, to chaos and darkness, seemed a more poetic conception of finality than the legal decisions of the Christian Judgment Day. The conception, too, of Yggdrasil, the great ash, spanned by the rainbow where it reached heaven and ringed by the serpent where it touched hell, was something more beautiful than the clouded heights of either Mount Olympus or Mount Sinai. It was not till nearly at the end of the long course of reading that has followed this book that I have come to see the nine-branched tree and the nine-story mountain as one and the same archetypal symbol—the centre where heaven is joined to earth.
I suppose that my interest in comparative religion started with Dr. Smith's Mythology, but there could be no comparisons till I knew something of the mythology of another race, and this knowledge The Heroes of Asgaard provided in its more whimsied way. It had no immediate successor, for in those days I did not know where to look for the books I wanted, but its frequent re-reading is doubtless responsible for my adolescent adventures in the Hastings Municipal Library with Frazer's Golden Bough. Later addictions were the Hindu Vedas and the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, but all that remains now of Asgard and its Olympian precursor is an unfailing interest in primitive religions and folklore. I do not take myself seriously as a student of these subjects, but I have read in them widely if not very solidly for the greater part of my life.
My equally long devotion to Dante's Divina Commedia proceeds from the college library in a more direct line. Christina Rossetti's Shadow of Dante was not written for children and there was much in it that I could not understand; but it stirred deeper thoughts and feelings than other books and it presented me with something entirely new. I had heard of Dante, of course, and knew that he had written of that mysterious Other World I found so challenging and enthralling; but I knew very little more and it was the details of Christina Rossetti's revelation that fascinated me. I studied the plans of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven with an interest only just short of belief, and I was charmed by the dreamlike beauty of the illustrations—reproductions of Botticelli, Domenico di Michelini and other primitives—so different from the three-dimensional art of Raphael and Bouguereau, whose strapping Madonnas adorned the classroom walls. The effect of this book, first read, I suppose, when I was about thirteen, made me choose the Commedia as a prize some three years later. I was given John Carlyle's translation in the Temple Classics, and read its three volumes very respectfully.
It was perhaps inevitable that at this time my preference should be for the Inferno. It is the simplest, the least metaphysical, the most dramatic, and it contains at least two moving human stories—those of Paolo and Francesca and of Count Ugolino and his sons. This preference was confirmed by a course of lectures I attended directly on leaving school.
An elderly lady of those days was wont to eke out an exiguous income with lectures to such other ladies as aspired after knowledge at a low price. I had left school still full of the desire to improve my mind which had come upon me suddenly in my mid-teenage, and I regularly frequented the boys' preparatory school, where, huddled into their small desks made vacant by Saturday morning, some twenty of us listened to Miss Rose's slow, cultured voice exploring the circles of hell. A more unlikely cicerone could hardly be imagined, and she contrived to make the ultimate horrors of Malbolgi and Cocytus seem very little more terrible than a badly furnished drawing-room. I listened attentively and remember practically nothing except the beauty of the verse. Miss Rose was a fine Italian scholar and would sometimes for our, and doubtless her own, delectation read long passages from the original, passages which reached me entirely as music, for I could not understand a word.
Of late years a very sketchy knowledge of Italian has allowed me to capture for myself some of the beauty of the terza rima, which no translation seems able to express. Miss Dorothy Sayers has with great scholarship and industry undertaken the task of putting the whole Commedia into English verse, but she herself proclaims the impossibility of making our language sing like the Italian, even though—as was never suggested by Miss Rose—Dante's verse is not always poetic but often homely and colloquial. My own opinion is that in these circumstances a prose translation is the best, because the clearest, and since we cannot have the music let us have the meaning. So I am still faithful to the somewhat rugged version of my school prize.
Unlike my interest in folklore and mythology, my interest in Dante has not been continuous. After those early lectures many years passed before I read him again, and in the interval I had joined the Catholic Church. This, combined no doubt with a more mature outlook, made some important changes in my appreciation. I was able to see, as I could not see before, the deep springs of his thought in scholastic philosophy, and to recognize in him not only the poet but the theologian. When as a young girl I had read the Paradiso I found it so unsubstantial as to be almost meaningless. It is now my favourite and a book of devotion. The Purgatorio is still in its old position as a second choice, but aglow with light and colour hitherto unseen. The Inferno I find too painful to read at all.
The third trail laid in the college library seems in some ways the most unlikely, and I shall never know how Sir Charles Grandison found its way on to those shelves. I do not think it was there at the beginning, for I could not have been much younger than sixteen or seventeen when I read it, and at fifteen had developed that conscientious desire to improve my reading which I have already mentioned. If it had been there I should have read it earlier as part of my campaign with the classics, so I can only surmise the date as well as the cause of its appearance.
I had not till then given much attention to eighteenth-century literature—that is literature of a later date than Pope and Addison. It is true that I had followed Gulliver in a safely expurgated edition to Laputa and the land of the Houyhnhnms as well as to Lilliput and Brobdingnag, but Defoe was still only the author of Rohinson Crusoe, and Richardson, Sterne, Fielding and Smollett were no more than names. I associated Richardson with Clarissa Harlowe and his authorship of Grandison came as a surprise. I had also associated him and the other authors of that period with shocking impropriety, and in spite of its place of origin, which would have been enough to reassure most people, I opened the volume with much the same air of suspicious inquiry as that with which a cat approaches a saucer of milk he is not quite sure about.
I had no sooner begun to read than I was seized. Seized is the only word that expresses the intensity of my interest. This was not like reading Scott or even Dickens—it was sheer possession. It is hard to tell at this long range what it was exactly that so held me. Richardson is no stylist and the society he describes is in many ways more remote from ours than that of Dickens or Scott, but there is an extraordinary lifelikeness about him and also a feminine smother which for me was something new. I shared the being of Harriet Byron as I had never shared that of Jeanie Deans or Amy Robsart or Dora Copperfield. I could almost see and smell her gown. Her story, too, seemed to come straight off her pen, as if her letters had been written to me. Be causes what they may, I can in this case say literally that I could not put the book down. I could not, but I feared I ought.
I was at this time going through a phase of extreme prudery. It is not uncommon at the present day for adolescents to develop peculiarities of conscience, strange compulsions and inhibitions. These may often be mere superstition—sevenfold repetitions, touches, charms—but even today the abnormality may be moral, though it is unlikely to take the same form as mine. My generation was in many ways more inhibited than those immediately before it, and as I moved up through my teens I collected quite a load of taboos.
Very few of these can have originated in my own home. My parents were sensible and the French influence persisted in the form of a sewing maid until I was well over fifteen. I think my school must take some of the blame. We are none of us, especially in our teenage, blank slates on which other people can inscribe their follies, but I cannot help believing that a greatly loved and admired heirarchy of spinsters had something to do with my morbid attitude towards childbirth.
My class was frequently called upon to read aloud from Shakespeare, and every now and then the mistress would cry, 'Stop! Don't read what follows. Start again at the bottom of the page.' We always had a special school edition of whatever play we were studying, one that had already been revised in the interests of decorum. But the reviser had not always, it seems, gone far enough. For instance in A Midsummer Night's Dream he had left the whole of the lovely passage beginning:
Set your heart at rest The fairy-land buys not the child of me.
I can clearly remember being made to 'Stop!' before I could get as far as—
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind.
—missing out everything till Oberon's 'How long within this wood intend you stay?' restored the play to decency. As a result of all this, I must be almost the only one of her readers who has ever detected impropriety in Charlotte Yonge. It was that perfect lady's treatment of childbirth which made me suspend my reading of The Heir of Redclyffe. Fortunately I told my mother that I had done so and even repeated the shocking words: 'She is to be confined in the Spring.' Her reaction was not that of my form mistress. 'But there's nothing improper in that! How could there be? It's natural!'
'Natural' was her word of praise and comfort—I have heard her reassure a kittening cat with 'It's all right, dear, it's natural'—and when she spoke it one was taken back to Genesis and the early hours of the world's morning when 'God saw that it was good'. I sometimes wonder if it was as a result of my strictures on The Heir of Redclyffe that when my sister Thea came to our home for the birth of her first child, I was not, like Mona, sent to spend the birthday with neighbours, but remained in the house throughout it all, being even taken upstairs and shown the baby when she was only an hour old. The sight of the tiny child and my sister, flushed and happy and exhausted, broke down the very last of that especial kind of nonsense in my mind. I seemed at last to see for myself that these things were 'natural'.
Unfortunately other kinds of nonsense remained, and like the schoolmistress my conscience would cry 'Stop!' when anything suggesting deviation from strict propriety occurred or seemed likely to occur in a book. I had read David Copperfield with grave misgivings on account of the story of Little Em'ly, and only my mother's casual statement that she had seen it once as a play in Edinburgh made me feel that a breach of the seventh commandment had not been made both by Dickens and by me. Sir Charles Grandison threatened something much worse. It is true that Harriet's abduction was meant to lead to a forced marriage, but I was terrified of what might possibly happen en route, and I had all the evil fame of eighteenth-century novelists in general and Richardson in particular to take into account.
Yet I could not stop reading. I must learn what happened to Harriet, whether she was married or seduced or rescued, and the hero, Sir Charles himself, had not yet appeared. The result was a mental conflict that reduced me to a trembling state of fear, as I risked, I thought, my eternal salvation just to find out what happened in a book. Luckily when I could endure no more I had enough sense to apply to the person who had already resolved similar conflicts for me. My mother, no doubt believing that my school library was not a likely source of corruption, took the whole thing very calmly. 'If you find anything that's improper you can always skip it. It seems a pity not to read the book when you're enjoying it so much.'
So I read Sir Charles Grandison right through to the end, and as it happened found nothing to shock me; which does not mean that it could not have been there, for apart from the scruples I had picked up at school I was amazingly innocent.
But I must not leave a wrong impression of the college, If in certain ways it was of its times—and when on leaving school my sister Mona went to be trained as a children's nurse, she found among her fellow students one that still believed babies were brought to earth by angels—in others it was years ahead of them. Every week we had a lecture on Current Affairs, and after a while it was decided that this should no longer be given by a mistress but by one of the elder girls. We took turns on the platform, and it was good training for us in a double sense—not only in the art of reading a newspaper intelligently but in the art of facing an audience.
The best-taught subjects were Religious Knowledge and English Literature. Both were taught by senior mistresses, and were always interesting and alive. But both suffered from the blight of examinations. Those days were before the shadow of the School Certificate came to lie over so many young lives, but the Cambridge Junior and Senior Local Examinations caused darkness enough. I think I can say that for several years the Gospels were spoilt for me; I could see them only as food for examiners. What aspect of revelation, what miracle, what parable, what verse or verses should I personally be required to dish up? The approach was completely dry and external. I remember my instructress telling me in the course of a last-week cram that one of the questions in an earlier year had been: 'How many times does St. Mark use the word "straightway" in his Gospel?' I sometimes wonder if that question is as silly as it seems, for surely the right answer is 'Never. He didn't write in English.' This would bring it in line with the intelligence tests which are given to modern children. But I doubt if it has any right to be let off with this explanation.
Equally a source of trial were the missionary journeys of St. Paul, as an account of at least one of these with accompanying map would inevitably be asked for should the Acts of the Apostles be chosen for examination. The uselessness of such knowledge—for even in those days I could see that the respective positions of Derbe and Lystra, Corinth and Iconium, had no real significance in the scheme of man's salvation—gave me a distaste both for the Acts and for the Apostles which I have only recently overcome, and that was by reading the book over again in the new language of the Knox translation, in which at last I no longer see the reflection of my own awkward red-ink lines looping and scratching over Asia Minor.
Another victim of the examiners was Shakespeare. Though before the examination we were taken to see King Henry the Fifth at the Hastings theatre it still seemed more of an examination subject than a play, and this impression even now remains, in spite of such actors as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Gwen Ffrançon-Davies. I also suffered from the fact that Shakespeare was always treated as a subject in himself, and never brought under the general head of literature. A whole term would be devoted to a play, with the result that at the end of it most of us had had more than enough. The only other poet whom I remember being treated in this way was Pope, whose Essay on Criticism also once occupied us for a term. It may be thought strange that Pope did not bore me, whereas Shakespeare did, but the reason is not really hard to seek. Shakespeare, I insist, is far beyond the scope of the adolescent mind, which wearies of the effort to produce the understanding and appreciation demanded. Pope, on the other hand, if given an adequate commentary, is well within its reach, and the light he sheds on his own period is a bright and cheerful light to read him by.
But my happiest memories of the literature class are of the term during which we studied the work of the seventeenth-century poets, including Milton. Here was a sheltered glade where no examiner trod, and here among the poems of Herrick, Herbert, Lovelace, Crashaw and Traherne I first saw the beauty of the written word. That which had been barely visible in Pope and to which I had been blind in Shakespeare now lit up my mind with a new radiance and transformed the world. I now read no longer only to amuse myself, as I had done up to the age of fifteen, or to improve my mind as I had done ever since. I read as if tasting wine, savouring before swallowing and then passing on the experience into reflection.
There was also Milton—less the Milton of Paradise Lost than of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, and above all of Lycidas. In a recent newspaper discussion on the most beautiful line in English poetry, I noticed that no one brought forward the line I was taught as such—
Sleek Panope and all her sisters played—
I am not surprised, for it holds almost nothing of evocation, only the music of sounds, of singing letters. Much better examples could be and were found. But Lycidas does not depend on Panope.
Weep no more, woful Shepherds weep no more, For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead, Sunk though he be beneath the watry floor, So sinks the day-star in the Ocean bed, And yet anon repairs his drooping head, And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore Flames in the forehead of the morning sky.
In that passage beauty was like a wave, sweeping me over the rocks of pagan imagery to its climax on the shores of Paradise.
There entertain him all the Saints above, In solemn troops, and sweet Societies That sing, and singing in their glory move, And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
These literary delights were bound up with others of a different kind—with the delights of my last summer at school, of looking over the edge of school-life into a new, grown-up world, my first novel stirring in my head—the long delights of blue, sunny days when always (or so it seems in memory) the classroom windows stood wide open and the air was sweet with the lilac and syringa in the garden below—of blue velvet nights, when the cockchafers whirred in a cloud under the street lamps and the smell of hayfields strayed into the town—the delights of friendship, as my only close school friendship found at last its adult seal in love and understanding.
That friend and that summer are inseparably united. She was the same age as I, but had come to the college some years later. In a very short time Pansy, as she was always called—she would not tell her real name and I never knew it—became the most popular girl in the school, and I—a senior—had it as my great ambition to win her notice and approval. How I achieved that ambition, actually overshooting it to the undreamed-of extent of becoming her best friend I cannot say, for our characters and interests were totally unlike. She was good at all games, whereas I, whether I held a tennis racquet or a cricket bat, was nothing but a clown. Her chief subjects were Latin and Greek, whereas I knew only French and German; she was also brilliant at mathematics, while I was a duffer who had to be sent down into the class below to learn arithmetic; and there was furthermore about her attack on life a realism and toughness to which my curious mixture of romance and pedantry bore no resemblance. Nevertheless, in spite of these differences we grew closer and closer together, and for the last summer we were as Rosalind and Celia in the Forest of Arden.
The latter was represented by Hollington Wood, three miles outside Hastings and now almost swallowed up by it. In our day it was open, unspoilt country. Here we would go every Saturday, plunging into the hazel glades, where I had once found white, scented violets, but which were now only tunnels of green. Our hope was to emerge in some new unknown part of the country, where we should find ourselves completely lost. But it was in vain that we doubled on our tracks and confused ourselves with turnings, trying desperately to outwit our sure knowledge of the ground. Indeed only once did we find ourselves really far from home, when after a morning's wandering in the wood we emerged at last on the road between Hastings and Battle, about halfway from each.
Our dream then crumbled into the reality of a long, dusty and hungry walk home, from which I could see no deliverance in the carrier's cart that trotted past us as we stood by the wayside. These carts were then the only connexion between Hastings and the outlying villages. They came in from some places every day, from others as seldom as once a week. Sometimes of an evening I would enviously watch their slow procession out of the town, towards the country I loved so dearly but could visit only in daylight. This one carried no passengers but was stuffed with hampers of vegetables and bunches of rabbits. I was horribly disconcerted when I saw Pansy take a flying leap at it and swing herself on to the tailboard. I could see such behaviour only as it would strike our headmistress were she suddenly to appear, and all I did for some time was to run disconsolately behind the cart like a little dog, begging her to get off.
As she very rightly refused to do so I was forced in the end to join her, and there we sat with our legs dangling until we were nearly home. For some time we cherished the illusion that the driver had not seen us and that in the end we should be able to slip off unnoticed. But he stopped on the verges of the town to deliver a hamper, and his face as he came round to take it off the back showed that we were no surprise. When he stopped at the town centre we slid off and went on our way without offering to pay him, for the adequate but possibly unacceptable reason that we had no money.
This behaviour does not very clearly suggest Rosalind and Celia, or indeed two Edwardian young ladies of eighteen wearing skirts considerably longer than those we wear today. Of the two it is closer to the first, for our friendship always had about it a slightly boyish air. We neither of us ever made the smallest gesture of affection, and I was greatly surprised (though pleasantly elated) when in her first letter, written after we had parted for at least a year, she sent me a kiss, 'for I wanted to kiss you when we said good-bye, but I couldn't because of the people standing round'.
To Pansy incidentally I owe my first experience of joy. I use this word to denote something distinct from happiness or pleasure. These I can thankfully say I have often known, but joy has come to me only rarely and then always as part of the life of another person. So unfailing has this been that I have come to believe that joy could be defined as our share in the happiness of a friend. It is the purest feeling that I know—completely without the sediment that clouds one's personal blisses. The ecstasy has no flaw.
Pansy gave me my first share of it with her success in the examination on which her whole future depended. It is part of the general woolliness of my perceptions at that time that I cannot remember whether it was the Cambridge Senior or Cambridge Higher Local, but it carried with it all the chances of her going to Girton. Here she meant to read classics with a view to taking a post as classics mistress hereafter. It is generally supposed that in the early years of this century girls left school only to lead a vapid social life at home until somebody came along and married them; but nearly all my contemporaries left to take up some sort of profession—to be nurses, teachers, missionaries and even doctors. I left to become a writer, to the disappointment of my father, who would have liked me to go to Cambridge and deplored the mathematical vacuum which would have prevented me passing Little-go.
Pansy was in many ways a star pupil and great things were hoped from her, but she herself—perhaps for that very reason—was full of doubts and anxieties, which naturally I shared. So it was indeed a matter for joy when I heard that she had passed her examination with first-class honours and distinction in more than one subject. I must have shown something of the rapture that overwhelmed me, for I can remember the mistress who brought me the news saying grimly: 'Don't faint.'
The event turned out to be even more glorious than it seemed at first, for Pansy actually had the highest marks in the whole country and received the award of a Girton scholarship, which solved many contingent problems. And the outcome of it all? She spent four years at Cambridge and left sadly disappointed with herself because she took only second-class honours in her tripos. She made up for this by leaving her Teachers' Training College with a brilliant First. But already her teaching career was being threatened by recurrent ill-health, aggravated by those domestic labours and responsibilities which a man in her situation would have been spared. At last the enemy openly declared himself and she spent three years in a sanatorium at Davos. The outbreak of war in 1914 compelled her to return to England before she was entirely cured, and it took no more than a few wet, cold English winters to bring back the disease in all its strength. She was only thirty when she died.
When at the age of fifteen I started my period of conscientious reading, I received one piece of very good advice. A friend of my mother's advised me not to read Thackeray until I was grown up. 'You wouldn't understand him now. You'd miss a lot.'
This was perfectly true and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early. I was, in the first place, young for my age, I had lived a very sheltered life, I knew nothing of the world and hardly any men besides my father. Nor had I at that time had any contacts with good literature except the Bible and Shakespeare's plays, which were already spoilt for me by being 'lessons'. If I were ever asked to guide a young person in a similar situation I should put Dickens and Jane Austen with Thackeray on the waiting list, also the whole of George Eliot except Adam Bede and the whole of the Brontës except Jane Eyre. I should insert the thin end of the literary wedge with Scott's Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward; Stevenson's romances and Charles Kingsley's Water Babies, though I should not seriously expect a girl of fifteen (if she were at all like myself) to enjoy the latter, and then build up on Mrs. Gaskell, Mark Twain, or Fenimore Cooper, according to the tastes revealed.
But I had nobody to guide me, and I cannot remember who or what first put the idea of conscientious reading into my head. I use the word conscientious because the entire course was directed by the compulsion of Ought and Ought Not. I was convinced that there was a number of books that I ought to read if I meant to become an author in my own right. L. T. Meade had long ago withered as an inspiration, and though I was at that time passionately devoted to the works of Edna Lyall, I realized that these had not about them that immortal glow I wished my own to display. I had heard of course all the great names, and it was now my ambition to bring the gods to earth.
This shows that Ought was not an exclusively moral compulsion. Ought Not, on the other hand, was the direct voice of conscience, my own and other people's. I have shown that my mother was not unduly puritanical, but she had her literary taboos, one of which was Jane Eyre. She could remember all the fuss there had been when it first appeared, and how frightening and shocking everyone had thought it. She herself had never been allowed to read it, so, according to her logic, it followed that I should not. My conscience would not allow me to disobey hers, and the very book that I myself would have chosen to start a beginner on the literary trail was deliberately pushed aside—or rather ahead, for I fully intended to read Jane Eyre as soon as I was twenty-one. I attributed almost magical properties to my twenty-first birthday, believing that it would set me free from all obligation to obey my parents or accept their point of view. I saw myself on that day as an independent being, no longer bound by prohibitions which until then I would not dream of defying. Before that day of liberation dawned Jane Eyre had been joined by Adam Bede and Tom Jones.
So short a list does not point to any very drastic literary censorship. Adam Bede, which is another of my would be introductions, went on it at the instance of my sister Dulcie. She told my mother she did not think I ought to read it. She had heard of a subscriber to some library who had found it so shocking that she had torn out all the last pages—which seemed much more drastic than my familiar experience of finding them gummed together. Tom Jones was no individual ban, but a book which I had been led to believe unreadable by anyone with any modest feelings. I provided myself with a copy some weeks before my twenty-first birthday, but I did not open it till then.
It is a pity that I have lost the list I made so carefully at the time, of all the books I read during the year 1902. But if I remember rightly, I started off with Dickens. This was an obvious but a bad choice. Dickens does not require so much sophistication of his readers as Thackeray, but he demands at least the rudiments of a sense of humour, and in this I was totally lacking. As a child I had laughed as loudly as anyone at the misfortunes of Widow Twankey, Fitzwarren's Cook, Dame Trot and all the other Dames of the Hastings Pier pantomime, but I was now at a stage when such buffoonery appeared shameful and so far no more subtle spirit had taken its place. A true sense of humour is an adult quality, the gift of experience (though I never believe it exists to any great extent in those who boast of having it), and its full maturity is attained only when we have learned to laugh at ourselves. Any schoolchild can laugh when Widow Twankey falls into her wash-tub, but only the elect can see the joke when they find themselves metaphorically in the same situation. With most of us the primitive form survives in the malicious. A 'devastating wit' is often no more than the grown-up echo of a schoolboy laugh at Widow Twankey.
I do not think a full-grown sense of humour is required to appreciate Dickens, but it is inadvisable to read him as I did for drama and pathos. He is primarily a comic writer. His character-drawing—and no one more signally than Dickens has given honorary members to the human race—is the drawing of a humorist, that is of a caricaturist, who can often show more of his model's essential quality than a 'straight' artist, but certainly requires a mature mind to appreciate him at his full value. I read Dickens not to laugh but to cry, for in those days what I wanted most of a novel was the gift of tears. So I wept over Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities and Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son and Poor Joe in Bleak House, though the biggest cry of all was denied me, as for some reason I never read The Old Curiosity Shop.
I deliberately avoided Pickwick, of which I already knew a little, for at an earlier time than this my sister Thea had shown some concern for my humorous education. She took me to see Charley's Aunt at an age when I could still laugh at tea being poured into a top hat, or at a man showing trousers under a woman's skirt as he ran across the stage. But anything more subtle was lost on me, and I can remember my sister's indignant whisper—'Laugh, Sheila! Why can't you laugh?'
The next move in my education was the reading aloud of excerpts from Pickwick by her fiancé, who did it remarkably well. Round the room sat the whole family, convulsed by Mr. Pickwick's involuntary intrusion into a lady's bedroom, which I could see only as embarrassing. Other episodes seemed forced or vulgar, never funny. In fact the reading was one long humiliation, for everyone commented freely on my lack of response. Some twenty years later I read and relished Pickwick, also Martin Chuzzlewit, which being one of the few works of Dickens I had not spoiled for myself by reading too early has been my favourite ever since.
George Eliot was better suited to the heaviness of my mind, but grown-up intervention had robbed me of the very book that would have suited me best. Adam Bede is one of the 'easiest' of George Eliot's novels. The characters and the story are better adapted than in many of the others to a young reader's perceptions, the comedy is unobtrusive and the tragedy obvious. Instead I read Silas Marner and found it completely uninteresting.
Scenes from Clerical Life rewarded me better, though there is much in it that I must have missed, but I never really liked George Eliot until I read The Mill on the Floss. This is almost as well suited to a beginner as Adam Bede. There is less incident in it and more of metaphysics, but its tragic ending might have been written expressly for me. That reference to the 'daisied fields' as Tom and Maggie Tulliver sank together beneath the waters of the Floss, seemed to me to reach the highest pitch of literary art, and I longed for the day when at last my awkward pen should create similar beauties for generations yet unborn.
I followed The Mill on the Floss with Middlemarch, a book which of course I ought not to have read till much later. I read it painstakingly, without skipping a word, but most of its virtues—and they are pre-eminent—were thrown away on me. The slow careful building up of the characters of Dorothea and Casaubon never amounted to anything I could understand or appreciate. Much of my reading must have been purely visual, and only the conscientiousness of sixteen carried me to the end of the book. Indeed I knew that I was bored and felt disappointed with myself for being so; and perhaps that was the reason why I read no more of George Eliot until my twenty-first birthday released Adam Bede for my unqualified enjoyment.
I took my prohibitions in the narrowest possible sense. Just as the banning of Adam Bede had cast no shadow on other works by the same author, so the banning of Jane Eyre left me free of all the other works of all the Brontës. The only Brontë novels we had in the house were Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, so with these two I started. They were bound together in one volume with an introduction by Charlotte, in which I read for the first time the story of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. As for Wuthering Heights itself, I read at first no more than the early chapters, for by them I was so deeply shaken that I could go no further. It is, alas, a common experience to have one's reading slowed down by boredom, but this was boredom's antinomy—sheer, breathless excitement. It was not, however, of the same kind as that which a short while later was to sweep me to the end of Sir Charles Grandison, for I felt no particular interest in the story as such, and was able to put it aside for some months while I recovered my breath. I then made another attempt and penetrated a little further into the book, but it was some time before I succeeded in reading it to the end. No other book has affected me in this way, and looking back on the experience I find it hard to account for its intensity. I was of course at an age which is liable to emotional disturbance, and considering all things I can regard it as a mercy that mine should have taken this harmless, literary form.
After Wuthering Heights I was bound to find bathos in Agnes Grey. Neither in that book nor in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does Anne Brontë seem to approach her sisters. George Moore used to insist that she was the most gifted of the three Brontës and that Wildfell Hall is one of the greatest novels in the English language. But I suspect this of being more of a challenge than an opinion. Anne Brontë lacks both the fire of Emily and the technical ability of Charlotte. Compared with her sisters' warmth, colour and strong sweep, her talent is soft and pale. When she attempts to move swiftly, as in Wildfell Hall, she breaks the book. Indeed I sometimes wonder if we should remember Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey had there been no Wuthering Heights, Villette, Shirley and Jane Eyre.
Curiously enough I found this last almost as big an anticlimax as Agnes Grey when I came duly and dutifully to read it at the age of twenty-one. It certainly did not lack movement and interest, character and sensation, but by that time I had read enough good fiction to realize how far it came as a novel below Shirley and Villette. The whole Rochester episode struck me as fantastic and equally fantastic the opinion both parental and ancestral which had forbidden such a fairytale to its young.
It will be seen that my reading consisted mainly of novels, partly for the reason that I intended myself one day to be a novelist, and partly because I had never been taught to despise novels. It had never entered my head that novel-reading needed any apology or explanation—as long as one did not read them in the morning. This odd condition may merely have taken into account the dangers of too deep absorption at a time filled with rival claims, but it is with me still and even now I feel guilty if I read a novel before noon.
My reading was totally unplanned, and my list of books was written as I read. Choice was largely the result of opportunity. I could not depend on the school library, even after its surprising production of Sir Charles Grandison, and I had no library subscription of my own. There was, however, in my home a number of books that I thought I ought to read. My sister Dulcie had a specially large collection, and on her shelves I found much of what I most admired. A fine edition of the Waverley Novels promised more than it actually performed, for I found that in order to carry me through Scott's flat-footed advance on his subject and heavy-handed dealings with it, something more was required than a mere Ought. I needed the propulsion of some external enthusiasm—such as had made me read Waverley. I was then going through a period of historical hero-worship, which having at last detached itself from Charles the First became fixed for a time on the Bonnie Prince at the end of his line. Owing to a sequence of Scottish holidays, I was mad about all things Highland, and particularly about the Gaelic, which I imagined I could speak. Waverley suited and enlarged all this. The parts that did not I do not suppose I read. The same craze caused me to dip into Redgauntlet, and a very different one into Anne of Geierstein. This unpromising trio came very early in my debauch with the classics and were read only in part. The first novel of Scott's I read right through was Ivanhoe, which of course I should have read first of all. Very much later I read Kenilworth, Rob Roy and The Heart of Midlothian, and saw a little more clearly what others found to admire. But I have never been able really to appreciate Scott and I do not think it is only because I read him too young.
On my sister's bookshelf he had a formidable rival as a historical novelist in the shape of Edna Lyall. This writer who had a great vogue in the eighteen-eighties and -nineties was a gentle, idealistic spinster, infectiously addicted to unpopular causes. Under her influence I became in turn a Parliamentarian, a Leveller, an Irish Home Ruler, and (for three days only) an atheist. Edna Lyall herself was never other than a good Churchwoman, but she could not resist championing Bradlaugh, and I was so powerfully impressed by the discovery that such a thing as an atheist existed that I had no choice but to be one myself—a most miserable, frightened atheist, quite unlike any I have ever known or known of.
Her novels did me no good, and I am thinking now of their literary influence only. It was very strong, and coloured not only the tales I was writing at the time—for as a schoolgirl I had begun to write for my own private delectation—but my first published novel. I remember a reviewer commenting on the ease with which my hero fainted. This was sheer Edna Lyall, for her heroes fainted at the smallest shock, and though she nearly always chose a male protagonist, there would be nothing masculine about him except his name and his clothes. I learned a great deal of history from her but very little about human nature, which was the science of which then and for some years afterwards I stood most in need.
But as a historian she could compete with Sir Walter—certainly in the matter of making dry bones live. I know enough history now to realize that she did not actually transport me into the periods she described—Tales of a Grandfather came doubtless nearer the truth—but she made of the past a sort of happy dream in which unhappy things took place, though always romantically. In those days I would gladly have gone back with her to the England of the Civil War, or to Charles the Second's Court, even with Newgate in the background. The past was painted in colours I failed to see in the present. She certainly was not good for me.
I think she was the only contemporary author I read at this time. Apart from her I had no interest in a book that was not at least fifty years old. Those I could not find in the house or were not given me as Christmas and birthday presents—for I now preferred books as presents to anything else—I bought with my pocket-money. This was now a shilling a week and it was wonderful in those days what a shilling could buy in the way of books. Indeed I do not think they can ever have been cheaper at any time before or since.
'Six shilling novels' as they were called, though they never cost more than four-and-sixpence, would appear later in a sixpenny edition if they achieved any measure of success. These reprints were inevitably of poor quality, and only the price made them preferable to the original edition. But when Messrs. Nelson found they could provide boards and a frontispiece for no more than an extra penny, the result was a permanent ornament to any bookcase, and soon became so popular that publishers grew nervous, and certain authors had to face a clause in their contracts which forbade a reprint within two years.
These were all modern, copyright works, but there were innumerable good and cheap editions of the classics. It was on these that I spent my shillings; they seldom cost more than one, though occasionally I would indulge in a leather binding at the extra cost of sixpence. I bought for three shillings the complete works of Jane Austen in two volumes, bound in limp leather, and printed on gilt-edged India paper. Fortunately I did not read them for many years to come, but they looked very well on my bookshelf in company with several volumes of the World's Classics, Routledge's Muses Library, J. M. Dent's Everyman's Library and other cheap reproductions in many-coloured, gold-laced uniforms.
For a shilling I read Watts Dunton's Aylwin, The Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Miss Edgeworth's Belinda, Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey and Headlong Hall, Marlowe's plays, the poems of Herrick and Crashaw, The Ingoldsby Legends, The Vicar of Wakefield (though I thought this worthy of the extra sixpence required for a leather binding), Washington Irving's Old Christmas, Defoe's Captain Singleton and many others. I recall the titles quite at random, but no more at random than I bought the books. I had only to hear a book recommended or see it praised in a newspaper in order to buy it—if it could be bought cheaply.
Some of these purchases I consider unfortunate—the Peacock books in particular—for I could not appreciate or even understand much that I read. But at least I no longer read for conscience' sake, and though my literary taste might sometimes be in question there could be none as to my literary appetite.
On leaving school this type of reading continued, as I was still in the same financial situation. I had been invited to change it for an income of thirty pounds a year, out of which I was to buy my own clothes, but I saw that the old rate was much more to my advantage. If I dressed as I should be expected to dress there would be precious little money left over for books, and at that age books meant more to me than clothes. Moreover, as my mother bought my clothes and spent considerably more on them than thirty pounds, that aspect of the situation was also better left as it was.
There were, however, certain changes, due to the enlargement of my views with Sir Charles Grandison. Reprints of eighteenth-century novels were not so easy to find or so cheap to buy as those of the Victorian authors. However, I managed in course of time to possess Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe (I never had a Sir Charles of my own), and as I reached the age of freedom, not only Tom Jones, but all the works of Fielding, with the exception of the Voyage to Lisbon, which I still have not read. Smollett fortunately came later. He demands more adult taste and I am glad to say I did not read him till I had acquired it. Sterne I read much too young, and consequently failed to appreciate him. Indeed I think it is difficult for a woman at any age to appreciate Sterne. He is essentially a man's novelist.
It may seem strange that I found in these eighteenth-century writers a pleasure much greater than any I have found in their successors even before I read Moll Flanders which, without going so far as George Borrow's apple-woman, I venture to think is one of the finest novels in our language. Some of this may be due to the period, which has always had a special attraction for me, and some of it is undoubtedly due to the freshness and novelty of the medium. These writers are primitives, they have not so far succumbed to conventions or false canons. Their ideas shine in the fresh light of a new discovery. Even the verbosity of Richardson, the occasional archness of Fielding and uncouthness of Smollett, the unadorned realism of Defoe, have a gleam.
I would give the position of the earliest English novelist to Defoe rather than to Richardson. It is true that his factual, detailed approach to his subject sometimes contradicts the idea that he is writing fiction—when I first read his Journal of the Plague Year I took it for a contemporary record—but in spite of this his writing is genuinely creative and merely represents the first and furthest swing that the novel has taken from the fantastical romances that preceded it. Richardson certainly excels him in the power of generating emotion. I found both Pamela and Clarissa intensely moving and exciting, in spite of the author's failure to realize in the first what an arrant little baggage he had chosen as a heroine.
Richardson's novels contain few if any humorous situations. It was for Fielding to stir into life the embers that Pickwick had fanned in vain. When I read Clarissa Harlowe I wept, but when I read Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews I laughed, which was much more of a triumph for the novelist. Indeed I owe these eighteenth-century writers nothing but gratitude. They were as good for me as some of their predecessors in my reading had been bad. Neither in subject nor treatment were they perhaps examples to be followed by a budding novelist, but their robust attitude to life—and compared with Edna Lyall even Richardson is robust—their hearty humour, their comfortable acceptance of the anatomical basis of love, all helped to rescue and preserve me from those romantic fallacies into which 'the girl of the period'—that period, so different from this—had been cunningly enticed by her mentors. My heroes no longer fainted, and though so far not a vestige of humour could be found in anything that I wrote, I was able to enjoy it in the writings of others. I am not sure that even then I should have laughed at Charley's Aunt, and still less am I sure that my sister would have laughed at the midnight adventures of Parson Adams and Mrs. Slip Slop; my sense of humour was hidden in a cellar of private laughter, but at least and at last it was in the house.
My eighteenth-century explorations sometimes led me into by-ways, and when I had read everything Fielding wrote (with that unaccountable exception) I sought for the same pleasure in a book by his sister Sarah. I sought but did not find, for David Simple is amateurish and quite colourless. Novel-writing was as much of an experiment for the brother as for the sister, but Fielding never writes as an amateur; his wit and above all his knowledge of life and human nature carry him as surely as the most practised technique. Sarah Fielding has none of his qualities, though she seems to have learned from him the desirability of having a plot.
Fielding is a brilliant plot-maker, and in that respect he may be said to have done harm to the growing form of the novel. Neither Defoe nor Richardson contrived plots, that is a pattern of circumstances and events through which the characters move. They deal in situations, but not in plots, and as a result are much more difficult for inferior writers to imitate.
Fielding has had in this respect a lot of inferior imitators besides his sister. Indeed at the end of the century the novel earned its bad name by becoming more and more an affair of contrivance and sensation. Walpole's Castle of Otranto and Mrs. Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho are the swimming human heads above a sea of misshapen monsters. The vast majority of novels written at this time—and there were many published for or even by the newly arisen circulating libraries—would be found quite unreadable today, and though early in the next century the art of fiction retrieved itself with Scott and Jane Austen, the necessity for a 'plot', some sort of artificial construction, persisted and affected such great writers as Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. When I began to write a plot was still considered essential and I remember with what conscientious desperation I contrived what my first review rightly dismissed as 'a mass of wild improbabilities'. Fortunately of late the two strains have separated. Just as the hunters and gatherers of primitive society split up into the two different vocations of herdmen and agriculturists, so the plot-makers now specialize in the mystery or detective novel, while the 'straight' novelist need look no further for his theme than human nature.
My reading did not take me far into the Gothic Revival. Indeed the only author I read who wrote at this time is Henry Mackenzie, whose Man of Feeling and Man of the World are romantic rather than Gothic. Jane Austen, of course, also belongs to the period, but its influence on her work is no more than that of Richardson's Pamela on Fielding's Joseph Andrews. Her Northanger Abbey undoubtedly owes its inspiration to those novels which appeared 'in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy-six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first of two tombstones and a lantern'. But the parody is not as close as Fielding's and much more good-natured.
I was now once again reading bilingually. The Bibliothèque Rose had long faded from the bookshelves, or rather its paper backs had broken, after the persisting manner of their kind. A few volumes had been bound and these I still possess, and the memory of the others is exceptionally clear. While I was at school I read no French at all except in class. French had become a lesson, and as deeply shadowed by examinations as the Bible and Shakespeare.
It would be interesting to know on what considerations examiners base their choice of books. Why, for instance, did they make me waste a whole term on Erckmann-Chatrian's Le Blocus?—struggling to translate a mass of obsolete military terms which soaked up like a sponge whatever human interest there might have been in the book. I used to take pride in my vocabulary, but I had not learned French under Napoleon and did not see what possible use such knowledge could be to me or to anyone else. Molière's plays and Racine's were different and my class enjoyed them, but the examiners did not ask for those and we read them only when no examination threatened.
As a result I became so bored with French that I read none for some years after leaving school. I was over twenty-one when I fell in love with a young man who was partly French. I use the expression 'fell in love' because that was what I thought had happened. I see the affair now as a deferred schoolgirl 'crush', such as I had never indulged in while I was at school. The victim, I am sure, fully realized what was happening, and in a spirit of self-preservation responded with nothing more indiscreet than the occasional gift of a novel by Henri Bordeaux or René Bazin. His glamour lay over them and over the whole of French literature, and while it was still bright I discovered on the bottom shelf of a small Hastings library a row of French novels. They were bound in battered blue, which also describes some of their contents. But my conscience had ceased to function in such matters. Some might have said it had died of overwork during my teens, or some might have seen in its quiescence a measure of my growth under the tutelage of Fielding and Richardson. This I take to be nearer to the truth if combined with the fact that I did not understand half that I read of this nature—in either language.
I still had no library subscription, but I read these works at twopence a volume. A number were by Alphonse Daudet and some of them really impressed me. L'Evangeliste describes unforgettably the conflict between a mother and daughter and the last line is still with me (as clearly as the first line of 'Come hither, Charles'). 'Elles ne se sont jamais revues--jamais.' Paul Bourget I had been trained by my French friend to admire, but I could not bring myself to care much for Maupassant. I cannot remember who the other authors were or if I read them all.
But I had recovered my taste for French reading, and when in 1912 my family spent a winter at Montreux, I assuaged the pangs of another love affair—calf love, belated, but the real agonizing thing—with French translations of the great Russians. Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekhov, Dostoevski were a new and exciting adventure, none the worse, since I did not know the original language, for being experienced in French. At one time I used to say that Russian translated into French more fluently and accurately than into English, but on reflection I realize that this was just talk. I could not possibly know. I do not know how either language compares with Russian. English certainly has a far wider vocabulary than 'une pauvre langue qu'on prete à tout le monde', but it may not suit the Russian idiom so well.
Actually I read some of Dostoevski in English, for translations of his novels by Constance Garnett were at this time beginning to appear. In English I read The Brothers Karamazov, one of the most impressive novels in the world. It moved me more than any other novel since Wuthering Heights, more even than the same author's Crime and Punishment, which I read in French. I doubt if any others of Dostoevski's novels reach the same heights as these two starry Gemini—which would incline me to place him even above Tolstoy, were I not obliged to confess that I failed to finish War and Peace.
Curiously enough, it is the Russian novelists who brought me for the first time into line with the literary fashions of my day. I had by this time written no less than five novels, but they were written in a world apart. I took little interest in the work of my contemporaries. Wells, Bennett, Conrad, Galsworthy, were all writing at this time, but I still buried my nose in Defoe, Richardson, Fielding and Smollett. The French novels too belonged to a forgotten vogue. But with the Russians I had by accident swum with the tide. When I came back from Switzerland I found a wave of enthusiasm for all things Russian sweeping the coteries. Authors were going to Russia and writing about Russia, and those who could not go and write stayed at home and read. This meant, of course, that my list of Russian novelists was swollen by several new names, as the demand for translations increased. But I found nothing to equal my first discoveries.
I attempted Gogol, but failed to appreciate him, though not for the same reason as I had failed with Pickwick. I was now quite capable of enjoying a humorous novel if the humour were not too subtle, which Gogol's certainly is not. 'The only difference between Russian tragedy and comedy,' once said my actor cousin Robert Farquarson, 'is that when in a tragedy the characters are murdered, executed, beaten or disembowelled you weep, while in a comedy when exactly the same things happen to them you laugh.' Even in a wider sense than he intended I think this is true, and one could make some interesting experiments—especially with Shakespeare who has of late seemed peculiarly to provoke and suffer experiments. Is there a chance, I wonder, of our ever seeing The Taming of the Shrew produced as a tragedy, or of my being dug in the ribs and told 'Laugh, Sheila!' at King Lear?
When a few years ago I was invited to judge a number of short stories by students at a School of Journalism, I was disappointed to find that none of the writers seemed to have any higher standard than that of the average woman's magazine. The stories were slick, romantic and either sentimental or semi-sophisticated, exactly like other magazine stories and evidently based on a prolonged and careful study of this type of literature. I suggested to the Principal that a study of Chekhov; Maupassant, or Katherine Mansfield would have been more to his pupils' advantage. To which he replied that his object was to teach them to write stories that would sell, and for that they must study the market and model their work on its requirements.
Of course he was right, but he had missed my point. I was not suggesting that his students should assault editorial offices with imitation Chekhov or synthetic Katherine Mansfield, but that a grounding in the classics of their art would materially help them to write in a very different style. It would give them more depth as well as more flexibility, and those who really had talent would not have it stifled in the strait-waistcoat of a passing fashion.
That is the reason why I shall always be glad that I spent so many years reading the best that has been written in our language, even though my indifference to, or rather ignorance of, contemporary trends impeded my own success with the public. I do not think that the books I read had any direct influence on me as a writer, but they preserved me from certain follies. The vogue, according to my agent, was 'drawing room melodrama', and I shudder to think of what my natural inclination to melodrama would have done if confined to the drawing-room instead of being allowed to lose some of its fustiness in the open air. It is worth remarking that such contemporary books as I did read affected my writing much more obviously than the works of earlier generations, the reason lying, no doubt, in the strong pull of the current compared with the peaceful edges of the stream. There is also a certain affinity between books written at the same period. No matter how much they may differ in subject or style, they reflect the same, or at least a similar, ethos. By choosing books more or less at random out of the writings of two centuries, I was moving in and out of a flux. Worlds of difference roll between Fielding and Jane Austen, Richardson and Dickens, Smollett and the Brontës. Even the fact that my reading was not planned, but directed by anything and everything—conscience, taste, opportunity, pocketmoney—prevented my ever identifying myself with any particular style or writer.
More than one reader has detected the influence of Thomas Hardy, but this must be due rather to the association of ideas than to any real resemblance. Just as every town with a stream running through it risks being called the English Venice, so any writer of regional fiction may be called the Hardy of Sussex, Cornwall, Westmorland, Hertfordshire or anywhere. As it happened I had written three novels before I read anything of Hardy's, partly because, being still alive, he had not yet entered the field of my enthusiasms, partly because I have never enjoyed reading the same type of novel as I write myself. I started to read his work when a small provincial journal pronounced him to be my evil genius. This naturally whetted my curiosity, and I read Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd, without being much impressed by either. Indeed I did not come to appreciate Hardy till I had read Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, which painted life in something more like the lurid colours in which I saw it. My profound admiration for The Woodlanders came much later and shows that Hardy, at his best, is for adult readers only.
As a young person I preferred Meredith, who happened to be dead, and in debates as to whether he or Hardy had a surer place among the immortals, I took the opposite side to that which I would take now. I thought Diana of the Crossways one of the finest novels ever written and very little less of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. Of his poetry, by reason of which, surely he will live if he lives at all, I knew in those days nothing.
Another reason why the books that I read at this period had no more than a general influence on me is that only a very few of them did I ever read twice. I moved from title to title, from author to author, without lingering long enough to take colour from any. Even those writers that shocked me—using the word in its electrical sense—made no lasting impression. It is true that one of the effects of Wuthering Heights was to make me call the heroine of my current novel Emily Branwell, but the model was the author, not the book. I had just read Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë and been deeply moved by her sister's story. It was Emily Brontë in her tragedy, strength and stoicism that I tried to reproduce. Apart from her the Brontë atmosphere was too much diluted to prevail.
It is not perhaps surprising that I read Richardson's three novels no more than once. Nor, having once declared my independence with Tom Jones did I repeat the gesture. I did, however, re-read Joseph Andrews several times while I was still a girl, but it firmly resisted an attempt to re-read it two years ago. It belongs as far as I am concerned definitely to the past, as do the great majority of the books I read between the age of fifteen and twenty-five.
There are, however, one or two I have not left behind in my youth. I met them then, but they have remained with me ever since as lifelong companions.
The first of these was George Borrow's Lavengro.
I was introduced to it by a magazine article, which quoted the familiar 'wind on the heath' passage, and was sufficiently attracted to spend two shillings on the leather-bound volume that is still in my bookcase. I had only just left school and taken my place in a world of afternoon calls, 'at homes' and subscription dances—a world so unlike George Borrow's that I must regard Lavengro's instant fascination as partly due to escapism. It is true that I had entered that world of my own free will. My father would have liked me to go to Cambridge, and it was entirely my own choice to live at home and write. But living at home, I was forced to adapt myself, when not reading or writing, to a course of vexatious boredom. My writing had yet to justify itself by results. It had not yet emancipated me from paying calls with my mother, who loathed them as much as I did, but whose position as a doctor's wife compelled her to make them. My father's practice would have declined had she not done so. Everybody paid calls in those days. A clergyman was not considered worthy of his orders unless he 'visited', that is paid purely social calls on his parishioners. Young men had to pay for an invitation to dinner or to a dance by an afternoon call. If one did not call one ran the risk of being called upon. It has taken two world wars to bring this system to an end.
'At homes' were for the most part dreary occasions, sometimes made drearier by a professional entertainer. They provoked, of course, more calls. Dances should have been enjoyable, and often were so; but not always. They were too hazardous. In those days it would have been considered quite outrageous to bring a partner; indeed it was bad style if one danced more than twice with the same man. As there were nearly always more girls than men present, and as each man had to have two dances free to smoke a cigarette and change his limp, wet collar, the result was an unfailing display of wallflowers and prolonged visits to the cloakroom.
In those days I would have given much to be a man, imagining in my ignorance that men were free of the trammels of an Edwardian world. I should have liked—or so my imagination told me—to wander about the English countryside, free of social restraints, or family obligations, meeting whom I chose. This tall, white-headed young wanderer, who camped with the gipsies, haunted the booths of fairs, wrote 'Joseph Sell' in an attic, travelled with a Welsh preacher, lived with a wild girl in a dingle, was myself set free.
None of this was consciously so. It is only later reflection that has made me see it in such a light. Nor was escape the only or indeed the chief reason for my appreciation. I had by that time read enough to see that George Borrow had rare literary gifts, more I consider than he has been given credit for. Lavengro disappointed his contemporaries, who had expected something very different from the author of The Bible in Spain. It was supposed to be his autobiography, and his obvious aeration of fact with fiction was an affront to Victorian rectitude. At the present time he is regarded in some quarters as a charletan who really knew very little about the subjects on which he dogmatized. But Lavengro has lost none of its charms for me.
One of the greatest is its strangeness. This is not due only to the subject matter. Many books dealing with stranger subjects have it not. There are many strange characters in The Newgate Calendar and Johnson's Lives of the Highwaymen, both of which I read at the same time as I read Lavengro, but neither of which has that same magical quality of strangeness, that aura of strangeness, which so enchanted and still enchants me. Borrow can make almost anything seem strange—the English army of occupation in Ireland, fishermen at Berwick-on-Tweed, a coaching inn, the salesroom of the British and Foreign Bible Society, a young man about town, all these besides the mass of odd people, places and situations we should expect to find so.
The latter's strangeness is enhanced by the genteel manner of their presentation. Borrow's gipsies, thieves and tinkers are not the brutal characters we meet in the Calendar or in Captain Johnson's book. If they do not always talk the Queen's English, they nevertheless talk without offence, using much the same sort of language as Moll Flanders, for whom a fellow female thief or cutpurse is always a 'gentlewoman'.
I venture to think that this mode of presentation is not only strange but true. It is certainly true of the gipsies, who are nearly always superior to the rural populations that despise them. The reason for the opposite being generally believed is that so many wandering people pass for gipsies who are nothing of the kind. The pure-bred gipsy, and there are still some left, is good-mannered and well-spoken. Should he so far forget his nation as to marry a 'gaujo', the offspring is generally more graceful and intelligent than any produced by the local stock. In most of these their superiority is equalled only by their anxiety to conceal its origins.
Lavengro might be called a gipsy fugue. The gipsy tongue has given it its name and the gipsy people wander in and out of the various episodes, a recurrent theme. No one else has quite their significance or beautiful strangeness of presentation. But there is very much in the book besides gipsies. It is packed with the life of early Victorian England, before the railways had made it seem so small. Long, slow journeys take us through a countryside that is gone for ever—a countryside of humble but self-sufficient villages, of great houses where privilege often showed itself in eccentricity, of fairs and horse-markets and prize-fighters, of inns where carriages still changed horses and postilions were still employed; inns, moreover, which sold good brown ale, the sort that puts heart into a tired and broken man—all this seen in the strange, transforming light of Borrow's eccentric genius, as if Salvador Dali had painted Frith's 'Derby Day'. Dreaming back over it all one recovers poor Irish Murtagh who was sent to Salamanca 'to be made a saggarth of', the apple-seller with her cultus of Moll Flanders, the Welsh preacher who spread his gospel under the shadow of his own sin against the Holy Ghost, Beckford and his 'touching' story, the old man who could read Chinese but not the clock, the Man in Black, who in Borrow's opinion was responsible for the book's poor reception when it first appeared, since its 'chief assailants were the friends of Popery in England', and above all of the gentlewoman from the Great House at Long Melford, big, beautiful, blonde Isopel Berners, whom Lavengro taught to conjugate 'I love' in Armenian—surely one of the strangest love scenes ever written. Much of this overflows into The Romany Rye, but one must take Lavengro's sequel as a continuous part of itself. The book is incomplete without it.
Having made such a happy discovery in Lavengro and its continuation I naturally read every other book by George Borrow in the hope of finding the same charm. The ensuing disappointment may have been a personal failure on my part, and I have given neither The Bible in Spain or Wild Wales the chance to prove it by a second reading. In the author's lifetime they were both considered better books than Lavengro, and I have seen the same opinion expressed today. It is possible that my preference may be due not only to escapism but to nostalgia. When I re-read Lavengro I find it clearly evocative—the various scenes are often transparencies over scenes and circumstances in my own life. Yet I have said and I still believe that I feel no nostalgia for the past. Perhaps the nostalgia belongs not to myself but to that first, fresh reading, when the strangeness that I still can see was new and shining in the spring light of my own youth.
To turn from George Borrow to Jane Austen is to enter another world, and the fact that I place her after him in my list of lifelong companions may suggest that her world is less congenial to me than his. But the arrangement is purely chronological. I did not read anything of hers until some years after I had first read Lavengro.
I use the word 'read' advisedly, because with me it involves every word. I do not skim or trade in samples. In that sense—which I fear is the more common sense—I had already 'read' Pride and Prejudice, for I had often dipped into the copy in my sister Dulcie's bookcase and knew the characters by sight in Hugh Thompson's illustrations. It was the illustrations that had set me against the book. They suggested a dainty period piece—a period, moreover, in which I was not particularly interested. I have always found this drawback in Jane Austen's illustrators. They seem to have become mesmerized by the clothes and furniture, so that the characters are reduced to mere tailors' and dressmakers' dummies, while the rooms might all be corners of the South Kensington Museum. The artist whose work has distressed me least is Mr. John Austin, as his pictures are frankly stylized. But he has his provocations. Why should even a stylized Captain Wentworth show a face like Cupid on a Valentine? I have sometimes wondered whom I should choose to illustrate Jane Austen, and have decided on Mr. Felix Topolski. His drawing is a lively combination of impressionism with virility, and his illustrations to Shaw's Charles II play prove that he can introduce a period without being swallowed by it.
I did not start my reading of Jane Austen with Pride and Prejudice. I began with Emma and found something so very different from what I had expected that pleasure had all the stimulation of surprise. I found a young woman who, whether she wore a high-waisted gown or not, was very like other young women that I knew, including myself. She had her faults, but the author was not blind to them, and her story is as much the story of the triumph of an excellent disposition over some very natural failings as of her discoveries and achievements in friendship and in love.
With Emma I consider that I began at the top. Some critics would give this place to Persuasion, but though the novel undoubtedly has more depth and feeling than its predecessor it has certain flaws which, in my opinion, prevent it ranking so high. The character of Lady Russell, for instance, on whom so much depends, is never clearly realized, and the sluggish start suggests a recent reading of Waverley. Emma, on the other hand, is technically perfect—too perfect some would say. There is always a tendency to belittle technical efficiency for the reason that it is so often only that. But in Emma it is something very much more—the perfect command by an artist of her medium, so that though the pattern is there, never does its contrivance do violence to truth.
This is not so in all the novels. Parts of Pride and Prejudice are obviously contrived, and Northanger Abbey is marred by an incredible incident. But it is remarkable that each one of Jane Austen's six novels has readers who would put it in the first place. I have given my own preference, but none of the others is without support. Next to Emma I would put Mansfield Park, though the drawback here is the important one of a failure of sympathy between the writer and the reader. As in the other novels we see events through the eyes of the heroine who, though she is never presented as faultless, is in all the others a young woman with whose outlook we can sympathize. But many readers detest Fanny Price. They regard her as a prig and are antagonized by her creepmouse ways. Jane Austen's own attitude towards her is certainly unlike her usual attitude towards her heroines. It has been suggested that her feeling for Fanny is maternal rather than sisterly, and that is what spoils the picture. My own impression is different. I have expressed in another book my belief that in the writing of this novel Jane Austen was heavily though transiently influenced by the Evangelical Revival which she would have encountered in Bath. She seems to have intended to produce a moral work, setting forth the excellence of the clerical profession and extolling the triumphs of virtue over vice and frivolity. She was far too big an artist to carry out this plan entirely, but we are left with an idea of parti pris and the conviction that the heroine has married the wrong man without her author being aware of it.
But the greatness of Mansfield Park is shown by its triumph over the disaffected reader. We may argue and we protest but we cannot cease to admire. In none of the other novels do we meet a more completely realized set of characters, and our likes and dislikes are a part of the life their creator has given them. In the earlier books—and Mansfield Park is the first of the second triad, written in her maturity, after she had won success with her 'lopp'd and cropp'd' juvenilia—more than one character belongs to farce and there is a certain amount of fumbling. But here all is firm and well proportioned and we have no difficulty in accepting the whole picture of life as it was then—or indeed as it is now.
For one of the most striking differences between Jane Austen and most of her contemporaries is the closeness of her outlook to that of our own times. In reading Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth, to say nothing of Mrs. Radcliffe, one is constantly aware of a different period. In Jane Austen's work it intrudes so seldom that when it does it comes almost as a shock. 'Elizabeth curtsied . . .' and we suddenly remember we are in a Regency drawing-room. The March sun is still two hours above the horizon when Catherine goes to dress for dinner—and we remember that General Tilney dined at the fashionably late hour of half-past five.
After my long course of more or less archaic reading, which I had just topped off with Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, I found all this most refreshing. My superficial study of Pride and Prejudice had not prepared me for so much ease. I read all the six novels without losing my first impressions and soon found that I was reading them again. Then it became a habit, and now, over forty years later, a novel by Jane Austen is my regular bedside book.
She is of course the supreme novelist of escape, and it may seem strange that I should escape in two such different directions as she and George Borrow provide. Her world is not so very unlike the world I wished to escape from when I first met her—only translate a dance into a ball, an 'at home' into a reception, an afternoon call into a morning visit and they appear the same. But an escape in literature as in real life does not necessarily involve a complete change of circumstances and surroundings. When anxious to lose our cares we may go for a country walk or we may visit a friend—with George Borrow I follow the first expedient, with Jane Austen the second.
Of course the idea of reading for escape raises doubts and queries. Some would condemn it entirely as a substitute for action, others would rank it with the despicable habit of reading for entertainment. But I see no harm in it as long as the world one enters is not an illusion. Neither George Borrow nor Jane Austen transport one into fantasy but simply into another, less urgent set of facts. They tell no fairy-tale that might send one back dazzled and reeling to one's contacts with normal life. In fact in my case it is their realism that provides the escape, for the fantastic and the improbable have always irritated me.
Both these escapes are significantly by way of prose, and I could write at some length on why there is not and can never be for me any escape in poetry. So my third lifelong companion, met first in those days, belongs to a different order. I was still only half grown-up when I first read William Blake, and if I seldom read him now it is because I know so much of his work by heart that there is no need for me to do so.
I came to him after a long school course during which I had learned to find in poetry a beauty I did not yet even seek in prose. I have already mentioned my young delight in the seventeenth-century poets, a delight which was repeated when I first read the eighteenth-century Thomson's Ode to Evening.
This lovely work did more for me even than the Cavaliers, for it moved not only my imagination but my heart. I shall always remember the hurt of it—a pain which seems to be, as far as I am concerned, an integral part of poetry, as it is of music. I had never felt it before then, but I have felt it many times since. I naturally do not regard it as a measure of poetic excellence. Pain is a personal matter, and perhaps pain is not the word I should use. But in all the poetry I love most there is besides the beauty of thought and language a thrust at the heart.
Shortly after I left school my friend Pansy, then at Girton, introduced me to Professor Gilbert Murray's translation of the Hippolytus of Euripides. She made the introduction with some qualms, being doubtful of my capacity to appreciate anything so different from my normal reading but by no means prepared to forgive me if I failed. Fortunately my delight in it was equal to her own. I was moved almost unbearably by the sweep of the conflict and the beauty of the verse.
Eros, Eros, who blindest tear by tear Men's eyes with hunger. Thou swift foe that pliest Joy in our hearts deep like an edged spear ...
There dwelt a steed in Oechalia's wild, A maid without a man, without master. She knew not love, that far king's child— But he came, he came with a song in the night, With fire and with blood. . . .
I quote from memory, for in the course of nearly fifty years my paper-bound copy has vanished and there is unfortunately no reprint. But one of the curious effects of this adventure into Greek drama was that I struggled for almost a year to teach myself the language, in the vain hope that I should be able to read Hippolytus as it was written. Needless to say I failed, but poetry has more than once provoked me to strange reactions, of which by no means the least remarkable was the idea that I could write it myself.
Though my verse brought me no distinction it gave me comfort of another kind, for it proved an admirable outlet for the grief engendered by the painful love affairs I indulged in at this period. The days of schwärmerei were over, but had been followed by a series of bewitchments—thus only can I describe my successive involvements with the very type of young man best calculated to make me miserable. Fortunately this fact (in humiliating reverse) was always discovered by him before matters had gone too far, and in a few weeks verse of a heartrending nature would be celebrating what I now regard as a lucky escape.
There was, however, one poem, which though not my own seemed to suit these sad occasions better than anything I myself could write and which relieved my heart in nearly the same way. It begins:
My silks and fine array, My smiles and languished air, By love are driven away; And mournful, lean Despair Brings me yew to deck my grave: Such end true lovers have.
This is not the kind of verse usually associated with Blake, whose fame rests chiefly on his Songs of Innocence and Experience and the Prophetic Books. But it comes from the only volume of his poems—the Poetical Sketches—which was not printed by his own effort and published at his own expense. I forget how, when, where, or why I first read Blake, but I still possess the shilling volume in Routledge's Muses Library which is scored and marked with references that it now seems hard to believe are mine. I read him till I knew most of his poems by heart, except of course the Prophetic Books, which baffled me even after I had called in Swedenborg and Jacob Boehme for their elucidation. It was not till some years later that I beheld the loveliness of 'those illuminated missals of song' into which his own illustrations transformed the poems I had read only in sober print. But print was enough to transfer their beauty to my mind and leave it with me till the end of my life.
In the Poetical Sketches and Ideas of Good and Evil there are many songs of love. Indeed one might gather together the love songs of William Blake into a volume—it would be only a small one—of their own. They are most of them lyrics in the true sense and I wonder why more of them have not been set to music. 'My silks and fine array' with its Elizabethan echoes cries out for the lute.
But love—in the narrow sense that met my passing need—is only a small part of Blake's inspiration. He was mainly, almost entirely, a mystic, a visionary, and his poems are the embodiment of dreams. This is apparent even in the simplest, most objective of the Songs of Innocence. He lived on the threshold of another world. Use what explanations you like—delusion, psychosis, unconscious symbolism, intrusion of dream images into waking life—you cannot alter the fact that he lived apart in a world which he himself called a world of imagination, though for him that did not mean it was imaginary. Indeed he proclaimed it as 'the body of God' and the only reality.
His philosophy is complicated and obscure. Brought up as a Swedenborgian, he came in time to free himself from Swedenborg's 'spectral and formal intellect', and to interpret life in the terms of his own visions, coloured by his readings of Jacob Boehme, the Kabbala and certain medieval writers of alchemical and magical tendencies. The student's difficulties are made no lighter by a private mythology decked out with startling names: Theotormon, Oothoon, Urizen, and so on.
It may be wondered why all this should take such hold of the young woman I was then, for certainly Blake expressed much more of me than my emotions. The fact was that I had reached an age when the first religious skin is due to slough off and the soul waits to be clothed upon afresh. But nothing fresh was offered me from the sources that should have provided it, and in my early twenties I found myself, like so many of my countrymen, a grown-up person swaddled in the religious beliefs of a child. This period properly belongs to the next chapter. What belongs here is Blake's share in my religious growing up.
His unorthodoxies stimulated me to fling off the swaddling clothes that had become grave-clothes, and his revolt against Swedenborg encouraged mine against the Church of England, with a mocking twist that landed me finally in Swedenborg's lap. I had come to realize that the doctrines in which I had been brought up and with which for so many years I had satisfied the examiners were not generally held in that exciting new world into which I was just beginning to peep. The free citizens of this world (as far as I had encountered them) seemed to be either agnostics or Roman Catholics. The latter offered no attractions, but I could already see myself as an enlightened specimen of the former, if only I knew where unbelief would stop.
Ever since my childish concept of a godless universe, followed by one far more painful in my teens, I feared that it might take me to the moon, that is to a dead world, a petrified world, opaque, solid and icy cold. This is the world of Blake's 'single vision', from which I still pray to be delivered, for it does not threaten only unbelief. The light he shed then on my vain searchings was bright enough to save me from the moon and also to prevent my falling into Newton's sleep, where dreams are 'the delusions of Goddess Nature and her laws'. Among his drawings—and it was inevitable that my devotion to him as a poet should pursue him as an artist—is a strange portrait of Isaac Newton in the 'spiritual form' of a splendid, naked youth, stooping low with his quadrant over a chart on the ground, while above him disregarded spreads the whole heaven.
Looking back on my life I repeatedly meet myself as a stranger. It was just such a backward glance at his vanished selves that convinced George Meredith on his death-bed that there could be no such thing as personal survival. He had been so many people. He could not possibly be them all. Therefore there was no 'I' to survive death.
But curiously enough this is one of the arguments used by Christian theology to prove the opposite. As white holds all the colours, so the transcendent 'I' holds all these different personalities. My life is the unity that binds them together, weaving them both consciously and unconsciously into a pattern which when it is complete will be my whole, my real self.
Meanwhile a backward glance shows me many women I can hardly recognize, though they call themselves by my name. One of the most baffling sits at a desk in the Reading Room of the British Museum. She is about twenty-three years old. Beside her is a packed lunch from the Eustace Miles Vegetarian Restaurant, and before her is spread a banquet of ancient books exhaling the very essence of pourriture noble.
This is none other than I myself, collecting material for a work to be called The Pleasures of Insanity. The title of course is from Blake, but the book will also include studies of Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg. If it had ever been written it would have been a shadowy suggestion of Mr. Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy. For in attempting a synthesis of these three writers, thinkers and dreamers, I soon realized their common ground in an esoteric philosophy of which it is hard to believe they could have had any personal knowledge. The ancient religions of the East, Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, theosophy were all fish in my net and I thrilled daily at the wonders I dredged out of the deep.
I had already worked in the British Museum, collecting material for a monograph on Richardson. For I now spent about a fortnight twice a year in London. My finances, based on the not very liberal advances on three novels, allowed this modest flight of independence, which cost me twenty-five shillings a week at a boarding-house in Redclyffe Gardens. Here I was given bed, breakfast and dinner, with full board on Sundays. The house was intended primarily for students at the Royal College of Music, and their young and cheerful company was part of its attraction.
It was here that I made my first literary friend. Hitherto, though I had encountered one or two short story writers and been kindly noticed by two established authors of that day who happened to live at Hastings, my literary life had functioned almost in a vacuum. But now I was on terms of equality with another novelist. We were both about the same age, had written the same number of books, and there was yet another link—our two latest had appeared at the same time and had often been reviewed together.
Most authors will know what that means. 'Here we have two novels that are equally refreshing' or 'disappointing' . . . 'it is with relief that we turn from Miss Blank's somewhat dreary excogitations to the sparkling wit and wisdom of Miss Dash' or vice versa. In our case the books received almost equal praise, though the balance was on her side. It was therefore a delightful surprise to find the author of Marcia, A Transcription from Life staying at number 84 Redclyffe Gardens and very much disposed to make friends.
I do not think my memory exaggerates in recalling her as really beautiful. She had eyes that were true violet and masses of copper-brown hair that I once saw tumbling in natural curls to below her waist. She had come up from the provinces to start work as a journalist and it was hardly surprising that with her looks and charm and undoubted abilities she should be successful to the full extent of her ambitions. She had done some work for Hulton's, who then owned the Daily Sketch, and had pleased them so well that they had made her editor of their Women's Page and given her an office of her own, which one afternoon she showed me in process of redecoration. All the plums of interviewing, too, seemed to come her way. I can still see her leaping out of a taxi outside the Eustace Miles Restaurant, holding out a huge chocolate box—'Chocolates from Pavlova!' and while we sat over the nut cutlets with which in those days for economy's rather than for conscience' sake I entertained my friends, I heard all the breathless story of an hour spent at the great dancer's home in Regent Park. She also described an equally exciting interview and luncheon with Charles Hawtrey, then at the height of his fame. But her greatest triumph was a ticket for the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, where she represented her paper. The entire boarding-house trooped in and sat round her as she described its wonders over the late supper that had been specially provided for her. It is a tribute to her rather than to me that with all this I was neither dazzled nor envious. She was so kind-hearted, unaffected and friendly that one could not grudge her her successes, and so pretty and charming that one could not wonder at them. I left London looking forward to our next meeting. But I never saw her again.
There must have been a longer interval than usual before my next visit, for what happened after I left could hardly have happened in six months. I cannot remember if I wrote to her, but I received one letter from her shortly before I went back to London. To my great surprise it was written on board ship and told me that she was on her way to America. She had been ill, she said, and the journey was for her health. Directly I was back in Redclyffe Gardens I asked Miss Mackintosh, the proprietress, if she could give me any more news. She could indeed, and of a most astounding nature.
Marguerite's journalistic career had been entirely in her own imagination. She had written a few articles for the Daily Sketch, but that was all. There was no sub-editorship, no private office—the place she had taken me to see did not even belong to her newspaper—there had been no Royal Enclosure, no interviews with famous people, and 'chocolates from Pavlova' must have been bought with her own money. It was all a mirage—most people would say a fraud, but Miss Mackintosh did not take that view and she was a hardheaded Scotswoman whom it would have been difficult to deceive. She saw the girl as the victim of her own dream life, and had herself witnessed what was less an exposure than an awakening.
This is one of the strangest parts of the story. Marguerite had told her that a distant relative had left her a large sum of money and an estate in Devonshire on condition that she became a Roman Catholic. This she had at first refused to do, but on thinking it over she changed her mind and went regularly for instruction to the Brompton Oratory, finally driving off in a taxi all dressed in white for what Miss Mackintosh supposed was her confirmation.
On the secular side of things she started to organize her estate by hiring an office in the Temple and engaging a young man as her agent. She also asked if she could permanently rent two rooms in the boarding-house as her pièd-à-terre when she visited London. She had been so happy there, she said, that she wanted to make the house her second home. As such an arrangement would involve certain alterations and engaging an extra servant Miss Mackintosh asked her solicitor to draw up an agreement, and this was in process of being done when a worried little man suddenly appeared. He proclaimed himself to be Marguerite's father and said that the last letter he had received from her had made him fear that she was 'in for another of her queer turns'. Once before this she had built a world out of dreams and her family did not want to be again involved in the ruins.
Unfortunately they could not escape, for the office in the Temple and the agent's salary had to be paid for, as well as a very heavy bill for car hire. They were perhaps justified in packing her off to America where she saved them further trouble by dying very soon.
Fraud certainly seems the easiest explanation, though there were no financial gains. Indeed, though her family had been obliged to pay for her major commitments she must have been involved in quite a number of incidental expenses that would have had to be met out of her own pocket. Of course her stories of success and wealth gave her importance in the eyes of her friends—a motive might lie there. On the other hand exposure—and exposure was almost inevitable—would do worse than merely put her back where she had been before. Moreover, she was so attractive and intelligent that one could see no need for such a difficult and dangerous method of self-boosting. Nor is there any place here for the Brompton Oratory sequence, which was as fictitious as the rest.
Miss Mackintosh would have liked to know what she had done when she went off on these expeditions to places where she never arrived or spent long days in others which had never existed. Her contact with the family and the details of the earlier collapse had, as I have said, convinced her that delusion and not delinquency was the explanation. She had received one letter from Marguerite after she left Redclyffe Gardens, giving her minute instructions about a cheque-book which she said was in a filigree box on her writing-table. There was no filigree box, but in an adjacent drawer was a pile of 'returned postal packets'—letters she had written to her non-existent estate, giving orders and information to those her dream had placed there. If there had been fraud would she have written these letters? But if it were delusion what did she make of their return?
I was to find out in rather a surprising manner. Part of the surprise may be the reader's when I add that not till after all this had happened did I read Marguerite's book. It is a sign of the remoteness in which I lived from the literary world of my own times that it had not hitherto occurred to me to read a novel with which my own had been so often coupled and whose author was the first writer to become my friend. But now that she was gone I, as it were, put out my hand to reach her in the only way I could.
Marcia was sub-titled A Transcript from Life, but I had never expected to find in it the transcript that I found. For it was nothing less than the transcript of her own obsessive dreams, delusional insanity described from within. I watched the skilful literary build-up of a situation very like that which I had myself witnessed. In the book it was an imaginary lover, and I guessed—though I had no means of knowing—that it was the story of her earlier breakdown. All this happened more than forty years ago, so it is not surprising that I cannot remember everything that I read. I should like to be able to recall how the delusion started—whether its roots were in sex or in self-importance. What is clear in my mind is the occasional intrusion of reality, when some detail which denied the dream—such as a returned letter or a failed meeting—forced its way into it. These caused painful moments of doubt and terror, but at first memory was always able to knit the dream over them. Then as the psychosis grew weaker this technique failed, reality tore the mirage to rags and the unlucky girl was left naked and exposed not only to the world but to herself.
I believe it is unusual to recall the details of a psychosis, but this one can never have been complete. It was in its incompleteness that its torment lay. A complete illusion of this happy nature might well be ranked among the pleasures of insanity. No doubt there are some who even now will prefer fraud as an explanation. The world is full of people who claim to be what they never were and to possess what they never had. Scarcely a month goes by without some bogus peer or millionaire being sent to gaol for false pretences. It is the story of Marguerite Curtis which makes me think that many of these poor creatures cheat not only the public but themselves. They have minds in which fact and fiction are unfortunately blended and probably believe quite a lot, though not quite all, of their own stories.
The link between the sad little story of Marguerite Curtis and that glimpse of an earlier self at work in the Reading Room of the British Museum is the packed vegetarian lunch that lies at my elbow. I have explained that my addiction to the Eustace Miles Restaurant was less a matter of conscience than of economy, but I found within its portals certain gastronomic and intellectual pleasures that would not have accompanied a meal at the same price elsewhere. For eighteenpence I could enjoy a feast of mock turkey and its accompanying vegetables, with a roll and nut butter, followed by fruit salad and cream; while round my plate would be strewn the literature of the Cosmos Society, inviting me to meetings, offering me Social Evenings and promising me the answer to the Riddle of the Universe.
It was perhaps unenterprising of me not to have attended any of these cosmic functions, but even then I had an uneasy feeling that they might not live up to their name. Once, a few years later, I went to a meeting of a similar society and was bitterly disappointed. A few rather shadowy people listened without much outward show of interest to a lecturer who had nothing to deliver but a sequence of moral platitudes. I had expected something very different—some esoteric revelation or at least some new interpretation of life; instead of which I had a sermon which I could have heard better expressed and delivered in my parish church.
The Cosmos Society might have done more for me had I given it a chance, but my experience has been that when these strange faiths and philosophies emerge from their literature and put on flesh and blood, they carry their own death-warrant as far as I am concerned. Certainly my devotion to Swedenborg did not survive a service of the New Church in Kensington Town Hall.
Myself as an ardent Swedenborgian is one of those selves I find most difficult to acknowledge as my own. Yet undoubtedly for two or three years, though I did not join either the New Church or the Swedenborg Society, I considered myself his disciple.
I met him through reading Blake, who was born in the very year that Swedenborg had marked as the end of the old theologies and the coming to earth of the New Jerusalem. Blake never shook himself entirely free of Swedenborg, and throughout his poems there are echoes of his doctrine, apart from the parody-reply of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 'A new heaven is begun,' he writes, 'and it is now thirty-three years since its advent'—referring thus to his own birthday. 'The eternal hell revives, and lo, Swedenborg is the angel sitting at the tomb; his writings are the linen clothes folded up.'
It is not surprising that with my keen literary appetite I should after reading Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell procure the book that had inspired it, especially as this was to be had for my accustomed shilling. What really is surprising is that having read this work I accepted its contents as a new revelation and felt that at last I had seen the light.
The explanation may be found in that revolt I mentioned in the last chapter. I had shaken myself free from the old-fashioned Anglicanism in which I had been brought up, but I had so far found nothing to fill its place. Blake, though he had saved me from the moon, had also very much left me in the dark, for his ideas were too obscure for me to follow and his vision altogether too ghostly for my sharing. Swedenborg's ideas were clear and precise unto formality and his visions as substantial as anything seen in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass.
I was temperamentally unfitted for agnosticism, for my religion, however formulated, had always been dynamic, which the agnosticism of the period was not. It was just this dynamic quality which Karl Marx put into atheism, making it thereby for the first time a serious rival to belief. I had never heard of Karl Marx, but it may be just as well that Swedenborg crossed my path instead of him.
The doctrines of the New Church offered not only faith but independence. Once again I had something to believe, but it was a belief I had chosen for myself and, what is more, could keep to myself. Swedenborg had never invited his followers to worship apart, so outwardly I might conform to the family's religion—thus sparing myself much argument, conflict and frustration—while comforting my private thoughts with a theology far more startling than anything in the creeds.
It did not seem strange to me then that I should swallow so huge a mouthful on the strength of one man's uncorroborated testimony. Swedenborg's doctrines appeared to me reasonable, and indeed they are reasonable in the sense that there is nothing in them that suggests any form of mental derangement. I knew very little theology and no philosophy or psychology in the modern sense. My alternative to accepting him as a prophet was to believe him either a lunatic or a liar, and by this time I knew enough about him to make both these alternatives more incredible than anything in his books.
My reading during the last few years has revived my interest in Swedenborg in quite another way. The matter of his revelation now seems of little importance compared to the manner of it. Psychology, para-psychology and psychical research all shed their lights upon him, and caught in these three beams he appears as remarkable a man as he once appeared as a prophet. In the course of the world's life there have been visionaries and seers aplenty, but they have mostly been men of abnormal character, displaying signs of psychophysical disturbance, even to the point of dissociation.
But Swedenborg throughout his life remained, apart from his trances, completely normal. He was a man not only of vast learning, but of practical ability and held an important public post until the onset of his visions induced him to devote the rest of his life to recording them. He wrote in Latin with astonishing fluency, alternating his labours with trance periods that sometimes lasted several days. His style is precise and clear even to sedateness, and his complicated system of theology is coherent and consistent down to the smallest detail.
Of course his case is not unparalleled. Rudolf Steiner based his 'anthroposophy' on a similer set of experiences, and there are also the voluminous automatic scripts of the Rev. Stainton Moses. Both these seers claimed to have had direct communication with a world of spirits, and among much that is contradictory certain ideas are held in common by all three writers—in common too with the ideas of other seers and sensitives throughout history. All these may have lived through certain experiences in another dimension, experiences which on returning to normal life each one would interpret according to his normal mental or religious outlook.
The Roman Catholic Church has never guaranteed the 'private revelations' even of its Saints, and it is notable that St. Paul when 'either in the body or out of the body' he was caught up into Paradise, says no more than that he had 'heard mysteries which it is not lawful for man to utter'. St. Thomas Aquinas after a similar adventure threw down his pen with the declaration that all his learning seemed to him now 'like straw'. Both knew that if they tried to describe their experiences they would be merely attempting a translation of what in its full meaning can never be translated—as if a man should try to render an abstruse philosophical work in the language of some primitive African tribe.
But of course it is possible that Swedenborg travelled no further than his own back door and found in his unconscious the images that his conscious mind systematized according to its theological preconceptions. Many of us find that we are in a certain measure able to control our dreams, and this faculty may have been Swedenborg's to an altogether abnormal extent. Moreover, the hypothesis of a collective unconscious would account for what he has in common with other visionaries. In most newspaper offices there exists a 'write-up man' whose function it is to recast material in an acceptable form. One detects this write-up man at work in all the sensitives I have named, and in Swedenborg's case a mighty intellect would have made him a truly formidable transposer of dreams.
Looking back on all the books of my life I must, I think, assign a larger proportion of them to Swedenborg than to any other single author, for during those years of addiction I read nearly everything he wrote and his output was formidable. After Heaven and Hell the others had to be procured from the Swedenborg Society and cost naturally more than a shilling, but even that did not daunt me and I ordered one after another as finances allowed.
Then suddenly the spell broke. I must have advanced some way in the Arcana coelestia when an impulse took me to a service of the New Church at Kensington Town Hall. Here I found an elderly minister with an ear-trumpet conducting a scatter of elderly people through a shortened version of Church of England Matins. There was nothing inspiring or even distinctive about either the service or the sermon and I came out bitterly disappointed. The whole thing seemed dead—like a stopped clock. No doubt I had expected too much, for I had expected wisdom and worship and neither was there. It was a long time before I found a religion that could offer them both.
Even at the height of my enthusiasm I could not take Swedenborg undiluted. Or rather, changing the metaphor, let me say that I could not eat so much bread without honey. For honey I had recourse, like Blake, to Jacob Boehme, and honey is the word that exactly suits his brand of mysticism, which has about it all the sweetness of the flowers he once saw transfigured in a field.
It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast to Swedenborg. A humble tradesman, though with more education than the average tradesman of those times, he never attempted to clothe his vision in the language of theology. Himself, like Swedenborg, a Lutheran, he realized the inadequacy of Protestant terminology to convey the wonders of mystical experience and chose instead the language of alchemy. Unlike Swedenborg, Boehme was a true mystic, and alchemy provided a rich fount of symbolism in which his message was less likely to be lost.
This makes him sometimes difficult for modern readers to understand. Lately there has been a movement to rehabilitate alchemy, but for a century at least the average man has regarded it as the sort of nonsense that people believed in until the coming of 'Science'. Actually alchemy was the physics of the Middle Ages, and developments in modern physics have shown that certain of its hypotheses had a firmer foundation than had been thought. It is also realized that alchemy was not only a science but a philosophy. Physics and metaphysics were not then two separate systems, but complementary aspects of the same knowledge, and the language of alchemy is susceptible of a metaphysical as well as a physical interpretation. The Magus who hunted the Green Lion did not really believe in the earthly existence of this heraldic beast, but in the quest of him typified a quest of the soul. Recently C. J. Jung has taken alchemy into the service of psychology and his own theory of the unconscious. It was therefore eminently right that Boehme should clothe his visions in a dress which is part of the vesture of the human mind.
The language, though it makes his message more obscure, gives it a beauty which Swedenborg's conspicuously lacks. My shilling copy of The Signature of All Things brought me delights similar to those I had found in Blake, for Boehme is a poet though he writes in prose, and in addition to his fount of alchemical symbolism he has another in nature. It was in a field of flowers that he first saw the Signature; as he walked in a common field outside the town the very grass became transfigured with the Glory of God. This was not mere nature-mysticism, for the glory of the grass lay not in itself but in the Signature of its Creator. The field for a brief moment became Paradise—an Eden to which when at last the Magnum Opus is accomplished and the Green Lion lies down with the Lamb of God, Adam shall return to enjoy the Eternal May.
Boehme's visions affected me very differently from Swedenborg's. In the case of the latter it was the content of the vision that appealed to me rather than the vision itself, which was often too prim for beauty, his heaven suggesting nothing so much as the White City hired by a Diocesan Conference. But Boehme's visions of the spiritual realities within the material forms I longed to see with my own eyes.
At that time I read Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism and also The Column of Dust, a novel which must have been a byproduct of the larger book. Later she was to become a valued friend, but I did not know her in those days when evidently her mind was moving on a similar track to mine, though with considerably more industry and learning. She too had obviously come under the spell of Boehme and one of the characters in the novel has an experience similar to his in the Thor Field. For this character a wayside tree is suddenly transfigured and seen in its eternal tree-ness. Blake had seen a tree full of angels at Peckham Rye, but that was not at all the same thing, for the vision was primarily of the angels, with the tree no more than a stage property. But in Evelyn Underhill's book the vision is of the tree, seen for the first time really as a tree, fresh from the Artist's hand and signed with his Signature. That was the sort of vision that I longed for, and I tried hard to make it come to me.
Naturally this type offers more chances to the imagination than Blake's or Swedenborg's, but even so I had no success. I would earnestly contemplate my surroundings in the hope that they would suddenly become changed into the furniture of another world; but they never did. I once thought one sunny day that I had witnessed a change in the Hastings Pier, which shows how utterly I had misunderstood the whole matter. Boehme proclaims that the glory of all things lies not in themselves but in their signature, and the signature on the Hastings Pier was obviously not by the same hand that had signed the wayside tree.
I fed my purpose with other mystical writers. There was an anonymous work entitled The Canon which introduced me to the mysteries of the Kabbala, and there was Paracelsus with his Four Pillars—Philosophy, Astronomy, Alchemy and Virtue. I also read a great deal of theosophy, varying between the pamphlets of the Theosophical Society and Madame Blavatsky's monumental excogitations. Thus it was—much wind, many sparks, but no fire.
And the result of it all? This is humiliating, for after all my effort and preparation there was not only no vision but no book. The Pleasures of Insanity was not even begun, and apart from the vague general memories of my reading I cannot recall any plan for its construction. It was to be a synthesis of esoteric doctrine as taught by such conflicting prophets as Boehme, Swedenborg, and Blake, but of the lines on which I hoped to achieve this I have no idea. Nor can I remember what brought my grandiose project to an end, whether it died suddenly or whether I just grew weary. The girl friend who had introduced me to Mysticism and The Canon had also introduced me to a young man; it may have been that—or it may not. Anyway, the time was now close at hand when I should forget my dreams and feel a little ashamed of having overslept so long.
My awakening, like most, was due to an outside noise. Hitherto the noises of the outside world had reached me only in sufficient strength to become part of my dream. But as sleep grows lighter the traffic in the busy street becomes itself and the sleeper in proportionate measure himself, so that when a voice bids him wake consciousness is already at hand and able to recognize that what up to now had been taken for consciousness was only a dream.
In my case it was two voices that bade me wake—the voices of two friends who had long been wide awake themselves. In fact I doubt if either of them had ever dreamed as I did.
W. L. George and G. B. Stern were not my first literary friends. Besides my encounter with Marguerite Curtis I had for some years been on friendly terms with two poets, Robert Nichols and Trevor Blakemore. But both of these, the first especially, had been part of the dream.
My friendship with Robert Nichols started with what would now be called a 'fan letter'. He had admired one of my novels and wrote to tell me so. I had already received a few such letters, but not enough to prevent me regarding the writers with awed gratitude. In this case the letter had other merits besides its appreciation. It was long and interesting, revealing what I thought a most unusual and attractive personality. Robert was then cramming for Oxford at a Suffolk parsonage, and already writing poetry. In the course of the next year or so I was to read a great deal of his unpublished work, for my answer to his letter had the unprecedented result of inspiring another, and soon we were both deep in a most voluminous exchange and writing with all the unreserve natural when in correspondence with somebody one has never seen and never expects to see.
That being so it was perhaps unwise to arrange a meeting, but we were both dreamers, Robert with more excuse than I, for he was five years younger. His share of the dream encouraged him to think that our meeting would be much more interesting if we were in love. This was rather difficult to arrange at short notice, but by no means beyond the powers of either of us. A friend of mine had recently received a proposal of marriage from a man she had never seen (and indeed such things do happen because 'if they did not,' as Jane Austen says, 'we should never read of them'), so his declaration both in prose and verse did not provoke the laughter that would have saved us both a lot of real as well as imaginary distress. Our romance lasted about a week, but my broken heart was still painful a year afterwards, and in fact did not completely recover till I came out of the dream.
Years later I married a man who in rummaging through some of his possessions turned up an old photograph that had once been the light of my eyes. 'That's Robert Nichols—we were at Winchester together, in the same house.' The coincidence went further in the discovery that Robert himself was living only a few miles away. Inevitably we met, but his greeting, after twenty years, sent a chill down my spine. 'Hullo, Sheila! So we meet again. I've still got all your letters.'
By then he had made his name as a war poet, though his published work since the war had been mainly in prose—a poet's prose of an obscurity that baffled some of his readers while it flattered others. There had always been an element of roughness and wildness about him, making him fly widdershins both with people and ideas. But through it all shone a deep sincerity and a perfectionism which would not let him approve his work while he could still improve it. In consequence he was a slower writer than almost any I know, and when death took him in middle age the amount he had published was out of all proportion to the amount he had written. He set before me a very high standard of literary integrity and I shall always be grateful to him for some painful truths.
My other poet friend, Trevor Blakemore, was a very different type of man. He was not only a poet but a bon viveur, famous for his dinner-parties, and he raised my standards in gastronomy as much as in poetry. I first met him at a dinner which a friend of his and mine was giving at the Cheshire Cheese for me to meet Hugh Walpole. I fear that on that occasion he shone only with a reflected light, for Walpole was not only a rising novelist but a critic who had given me one of the best notices (in the old Standard) that it would ever be my lot to receive.
No doubt Walpole and I expected too much of each other and in consequence were both disappointed. I had expected him to be as friendly in speech as he had been in print, while he had expected—it is not for me to say, but probably nothing like the shy, awkward, creature that I doubtless appeared. In any case, though the evening ended in a friendship it was not between me and Hugh Walpole.
Trevor Blakemore proved himself my friend in a number of ways, not the least of which was his taking in hand the fortunes of my only book of verse. He did this in a double sense, for he not only helped me on the business side but—which was much more necessary—to revise and improve the contents. He himself published several volumes of verse, but he had not the force or the originality of Robert Nichols, except when he wrote in rage, and then the results were unfit for publication. I remember him most vividly as a connoisseur of other people's work. He loved to read aloud in a singing, sepulchral voice that set the words like bells in one's memory. I first met Rupert Brooke that way.
Mamua, when our laughter ends, And hearts and bodies, brown as white, Are dust about the doors of friends, Or scent a-blowing down the night. . .
The words are Brooke's, but it is Trevor's voice that reads them even now.
W. L. George and G. B. Stern also entered my life on the fan mail. By that time I took such letters more calmly, but fortunately I had not learned what many would have learned from my experience with Robert Nichols and refused to meet my correspondents. If I had my life would have been considerably the poorer.
They both wrote in the same year, but under a different impulse. G. B. Stern wrote to praise my latest novel; W. L. George wrote in more general terms. He had seen in my recent book a decline from the one before it. In the latter lay buried the seed of future success, for it was about farm life and country people, and not, as the other, about townspeople living in the country.
Naturally he did not tell me this when he first wrote, but we soon came to know each other well, for our meeting took place very early in our acquaintance and he preferred talking to writing letters. He was infectiously interested in the process of book construction, and one of the many debts I owe him is that he entirely reformed mine. Till then I had followed blindly a hit-or-miss method. I sat down and wrote in pencil till the book was finished. Then I made in ink a second version which was supposed to be a fair copy but actually turned out very differently from the first. Endless revisions and adjustments followed, for I had no detailed plan, only 'an idea in my head'.
Willy George taught me to plan beforehand in great detail—almost down to paragraphs; then having got my blueprint absolutely clear, to follow it closely in a single script which would need only slight revision. This method not only made writing a simpler and less harassing occupation, but I venture to think it obtained better results. Certainly the novels I wrote after I changed to it had greater success and longer lives.
When I met him George was the author of three novels, all of which had aroused discussion and one of which had caused a storm. A Bed of Roses was the story of a prostitute, and what is more, of a successful prostitute, who instead of coming to a bad end lived happily ever afterwards. This would not do for 1912 and the libraries refused to handle the book. It is not a masterpiece, or indeed literature of a high order, but it is intensely vital, like all his work, and chock-full of intelligence. He accepted its fate with a shrug, and wrote The City of Light, which is the only novel of his I have not read. His third, The Making of an Englishman, was very much his own story.
Unlike the hero of that book, W. L. George was not a born Frenchman, but he had spent so much of his life in France that this made little difference. French civilization is intensely penetrating, and when he came to England as a young man he had as much difficulty as his Cadoresse in turning himself into an Englishman. He never completely threw off his French accent or learned that there were things one must not say and, above all, things one must not wear. When I first met him he was wearing cloth-topped boots, and though he progressed beyond this stage he never shared the Englishman's horror of being too well dressed. If he had I should not have a very pleasant memory of him in splendid attire, top hat, lavender waistcoat and sponge bag trousers, scouring the meaner shops of Soho for stale bread and bad bananas as a preliminary to taking me to the Zoo on the top of a bus.
He taught me not only to work but to play. He saw both as ways of enjoying life, whereas I was inclined to take both too solemnly. Writing books he once declared was no more than a pleasant way of earning one's living, which, though not entirely true, was a wholesome change from the rather highfalutin attitude of the little group of authors I had known in Hastings. Equally commercial was his idea that every author should wear a label, in order to impress his work more clearly on the public's mind. In my case this did not do much harm, for I had already chosen my own course and only required encouragement in it. But with himself he was less fortunate, for he decided to appear as 'the man who understands women'. This led to some painful publicity, of which perhaps the worst example was the photograph of an embarrassed Willy sheepishly holding up a pair of silk stockings reputed to have been sent to him by a female reader so struck by his understanding of women that she was quite sure he must be one. Knowing him as I did, I was not surprised to hear that the photograph was no display of blatant self-advertisement, but of sheer good nature. A young journalist, anxious for a 'story', had brought the stockings along in the hope that he would be induced to pose with them; and Willy was one of the few men he would have found willing to make a fool of himself to give him his chance.
I am convinced that he unnecessarily belittled his own talents and that he was a much better writer than he would acknowledge. Towards the end of his life he produced too much, but the greater part of his work deserved to live longer than it has; his fourth novel, for instance, The Second Blooming, was a vital and intelligent study of married life, in which he really seemed to come close to the understanding of a woman's heart.
'Vital and intelligent.' Those adjectives apply to him as much as to his work, and his influence was bound to be good for anyone like myself who was in danger of becoming over-sublimated. He loved music-halls, which till then I had never entered (except in their more high-class manifestations at the Palace and the Coliseum), and he loved big, noisy thoroughfares, and crowds on Hampstead Heath. He warned me repeatedly, though quite unnecessarily, against making too many friendships among authors. Authors gave a literary slant to life, they did not see it as it was. How he would have loathed the Bloomsbury School and the coterie novel had he lived to see them!
This view of authors did not prevent him taking a lively interest in the writers of his own day, though it was an interest rather like that of those who study 'form' in horses. He had his team of probable winners among the women novelists, to match Henry James' team of promising young men—Hugh Walpole, Compton Mackenzie, Gilbert Cannan, E. M. Forster, 'with D. H. Lawrence panting in the dusty rear'. George's selection included myself, Ivy Low, Amber Reeves, Viola Meynell and Bridget McLagan; but he proved (in spite of the D. H. Lawrence gaffe) a less accurate tipster than James, for three at least of his favourites dropped out of the race. Ivy Low married Litvinoff, the Russian Foreign Minister, and went to live in Russia, while Amber Reeves and Bridget McLagan gave up writing for other activities. I suppose that women will never be as safe a bet as men, for life is only too likely to nobble them.
Actually the only author to whom he introduced me was D. H. Lawrence, and the meeting was nearly as disappointing as that earlier one with Hugh Walpole. It failed, too, for the same reason, though this time the shyness was Lawrence's. He had just made his name with Sons and Lovers, had just come to London and just got married when George gave a dinner-party for him—at which we were bidden 'not to dress', a circumstance that in those days emphasized the peculiarity of the guest of the evening. In conversation our host dwelt characteristically on the commercial side of authorship, ignoring its more soulful aspects. Lawrence had been offered for his next book an advance of a hundred and fifty pounds, which seemed to him the fortune that it seemed to me. He and his wife now considered themselves free of financial anxieties and were planning to range the world. I liked her very much better than I liked him, and for the very qualities that were to make strife between them later on, one of which was her readiness to laugh. As a personality I found him uncouthly knotted up in his own past and a tangle of ideals and prejudices, but she was simple and merry, and the part of the evening I enjoyed most was the half-hour we spent alone together.
No doubt it is unwise to meet authors whose work we admire, because it is impossible for most of them to come up to the expectations aroused by their books. Indeed, the better the book the less likely the writer to live up to it in his manner and conversation. The author of a witty play or novel may give evidence of it in his speech, but profounder subjects do not come near enough to the surface to be displayed at a first encounter. But that people will persist in expecting great things of authors is shown by the following pathetic little story.
I was staying with a friend at a country inn when an elderly man with a small brown moustache arrived on a bicycle and signed the hotel register in the name of Thomas Anstie Guthrie. I at once recognized him as 'F. Anstey', author of those immortal fantasies Vice-Versa and The Brass Bottle and I unwarily passed on the knowledge to my friend. She begged me to speak to him, which was not difficult as we were the only other guests and there was only one room for us to sit in. I found him cheerful and friendly and the three of us spent a pleasant evening playing poker patience. But my friend was not satisfied.
'You haven't told him who you are.'
Nor had I, as it happened, mentioned his own work. We were just a couple of strangers meeting at an inn. I pointed out that as he did not write under his own name he might not wish to be recognized, and as for my name, he had signed his own under it in the hotel register, so he must know it without being told, and either it meant nothing to him or he had the same scruples as I.
But she would have none of this, and in the end I grew impatient.
'Why are you so anxious for me to "tell him who I am"? He couldn't be more friendly than he's been tonight, so what difference would it make?'
'If he knew who you were he wouldn't just spend the evening playing poker patience. He and you would have such a deep, thrilling, wonderful conversation, and I would sit there drinking it all in.'
G. B. Stern did not share W. L. George's views on authors. Indeed, under her auspicies I was to meet more authors in a year than I had hitherto in the course of my life. This was done by means of a trip to Cornwall. Unlike me, she was sensitive to literary fashions and Cornwall had long been the fashion among novelists. Hugh Walpole lived there and had used it as a background for more than one of his novels, so did Compton Mackenzie; and when G. B. Stern and I arrived at St. Merryn towards the end of the First World War we found already in residence and within easy reach of us J. D. Beresford, Kenneth Richmond, Dorothy Richardson, and C. A. Dawson Scott.
The last seemed to be in some sort of unofficial charge of the colony. I shall never forget her as she appeared on the doorstep of the coastguard's cottage where we were to stay, majestic in a purple velvet tea-gown, under which her bare feet showed the travel stains of a mile's walk. She welcomed us very kindly to St. Merryn and ordered us to take off our shoes and stockings.
She was too firm about this for us to disobey her, and after one or two agonizing experiments we both became so accustomed to going barefoot that we were quite sorry when the time came to put on our shoes again. The tea-gown I never understood, but I soon diagnosed the bare feet as part of an anti-convention complex as powerful as any Victorian manifestation of its opposite. Though herself a woman of the utmost integrity—her nickname of Sappho had no connexion with anything more sinister than her early efforts as a poet—she loved to think of authors as emancipated from all the usual moral ties and the ordinary conventions of society. I fear that I must have sometimes caused her great distress, because I lived with my parents and on the only occasion she called at my home tea was served in a silver teapot. If I had offered it to her in a saucer with Dog on it she could not have been more upset. 'Why do you have a silver teapot? Do you use it every day?' It was all in character that she should be annoyed when authors weakly yielded to temptation and got married instead of living together in sin, and I know of one couple who did not dare tell her of their nuptials and allowed her to think the best of them until by some inadvertence their guilt appeared. When G. B. Stern and I married we both had great difficulty in reconciling our husbands to what she said about them, neither of them enjoying being treated as our seducers.
In spite of this nonsense I became sincerely attached to her, for under it all was a warm, kind, friendly and essentially humble nature. She was quite without vanity or self-seeking. She herself was a very good writer, and her novels deserved far more praise and notice than they received. She dealt mainly in rural subjects, and was perhaps too much inclined to see 'something nasty in the woodshed', but she wrote with strength and originality, and her characters all had the stamp of truth. But no novel of hers had any material success, and the essential generosity of her nature was shown in her lack of resentment or envy. On the contrary, she delighted in the successes of other authors, many of whom had less talent than she, and her ambition found an extra-personal satisfaction in the founding of literary societies.
The first of these, the Tomorrow Club, was being formed in her mind during that Cornish summer and was launched immediately on her return to London. The members met once a month to be addressed by one of their number, and at first these gatherings were highly stimulating, almost all the young writers of note belonging and attending. But before long the floor was taken too often by those who confounded wit and impudence, and Sappho herself grew weary of her boisterous creation. It was run for a considerable time by Trevor Blakemore, but changed its nature, becoming a club where the nonliterary public were given a monthly opportunity to hear the lions roar.
Sappho transferred her energies to the P.E.N. (Poets, Editors, Novelists), which has long outlived her. Unlike Tomorrow it was to be a dining club, and I remember its first dinner in a room above a Soho restaurant, with Galsworthy, its first president, presiding over some twenty authors at a single table. Soon vast rooms and many tables were required for its accommodation, and it was not very long before branches of P.E.N. had been established in most European capitals. Galsworthy believed strongly in an international body of authors as a safeguard to peace, but it is noteworthy that those who organized the Authors' Peace Movement ignored P.E.N.
Through these two clubs I naturally came to meet most of the authors of my day. Those first years of peace seemed to have been particularly favourable to novelists. The war had been a poets' war, but when it ended those of the poets who had not lost their lives seemed to lose their voices. Novelists, on the other hand, found encouragement in the thought of life returning to its normal problems and relationships without the eschatological complications of war.
Many young writers produced their best work at this period. Compton Mackenzie, having consolidated the fame he had won with Sinister Street by what many considered his best novel, Guy and Pauline, had started to write of Sylvia Scarlett. Hugh Walpole, having also won fame with Fortitude and The Dark Forest, was reviving his own youth in the Jeremy books. D. H. Lawrence had unfortunately fallen foul of the censors with The Rainbow, but was soon to write that lovely book The Lost Girl. J. D. Beresford had completed the Jacob Stahl trilogy, and Somerset Maugham, long famous as a playwright, had launched with Of Human Bondage into another type of success. Alec Waugh had returned from a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany to show that The Loom of Youth had not been a literary flash-in-the-pan, while other young novelists, such as Frederick Niven, Oliver Onions, F. Tennyson Jesse, Rose Macaulay, Stella Benson and Viola Meynell were forging ahead into acceptance by the public and the critics.
The way of the young writers was made easier by the fact that the older generation, those who had established themselves before the war, seemed now to be marking time. Wells, having become a war-time best seller with Mr. Britling Sees it Through and its theological chaser God the Invisible King, was producing novels of no heavier calibre than The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman and The Secret Places of the Heart. Arnold Bennett was turning from the Five Towns to the worship of Hotel Imperial, while Galsworthy had unfortunately been caught in the wheel of his own creation and with The Forsyte Saga was delighting those whose feelings he had outraged in The Man of Property.
Undoubtedly those immediately post-war years belonged to youth and imagination, and to them also belong my happiest literary memories. I was no longer a lone fish but swimming with the shoal, no longer lurking in a backwater but carried on the tide. In fact I might have been accused of keeping too carefully mid-stream, for I took no part in the new literary experiments that were being made around me.
It was natural that at such a time new ideas should arise and take shape. One of the most widely tried-out was the 'stream of consciousness' novel, in which the author abandoned his god's-eye view, and became purely immanent in his creation. This method had been put into practice before the war, when Dorothy Richardson started her Miriam sequence of eight novels. But now it was taken up by other writers, and in some circles it was considered as old-fashioned to know what your characters were doing as it had formerly been to address the reader.
Dorothy Richardson, though she was the founder of this school of fiction, was not its best exponent. She was too unselective. Miriam's mind-stream carries an overwhelming amount of debris, too much when we consider that in all but certain pathological types consciousness itself is selective and is continually sweeping flotsam to the sides and clearing the main current. Many novelists, especially the more experienced, realized this, and the technique is seen at its best and clearest when used by that very fine though almost forgotten novelist, May Sinclair.
Ever since The Divine Fire appeared in the nineteen hundreds May Sinclair had stood in high repute with the critics. She had also had a measure of popular success. Her novels were in a true sense a criticism of English family life and manners, written with thoughtfulness and distinction. She had also written at least one book on philosophy. She was now no longer young, but for some reason she never took her place among the top-ranking novelists, such as Wells, Conrad and Galsworthy, or even with that no more gifted and much more boring writer Mrs. Humphry Ward. She was deeply interested in the craft of writing and it was characteristic of her to try out an entirely new technique towards the end of her literary career.
With her the immanental method was completely successful, for her self-discipline and artistic discernment saved her heroine from drowning in her own stream of consciousness, which had been the fate of many. Indeed I would say that Mary Olivier is May Sinclair's finest book. It has more emotional strength than its predecessors and a deeper insight into character—virtues which flourish through the technique and not in spite of it.
There is, however, the drawback inevitably attached to any literary fashion—a certain datedness. Of course all novels date—Fielding could never be taken for a contemporary of Dickens or Dickens of Graham Greene—but more widely, in generations or even centuries, whereas a limited and passing fashion stamps the year. And for some reason the 'stream of consciousness' fashion quickly passed. It is true that Virginia Woolf's novels are immanental, but the stresses are so different that we cannot compare them. Nor does the curious, jerky but completely clear style of Mary Olivier flow logically into the obscurities of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.
There were other and perhaps more potent influences at work, influences as far apart as Freud and Proust. The technique of psycho-analysis had come before the public during the later stages of the war, and certain novelists grabbed it as a means of displaying their characters. Novels became full of dreams, and secret motives were pulled out from under actions and laid on the dissecting table. The result was very much as if an artist should draw a figure showing all the muscles and viscera. Some of Blake's drawings are of that kind, just because he did not as a rule draw from the living model, but Blake was a genius who could put life and meaning into the Ghost of a Flea. It was perhaps fortunate that the Freudian craze in fiction soon died down, leaving however a contribution to the novelist's art similar to that offered to painting by a knowledge of anatomy.
The influence of Proust was more subtle, more beneficial and more lasting. Indeed it is still at work and may be said to have changed the technique of the English novel from narration to evocation. Proust has the further distinction of being the first important foreign influence on English fiction. The novel in its origins is an essentially English form of art and the first English novelists made a deep impression on the Continent. Richardson especially had his disciples and imitators both in France and Germany. In the eighteen-nineties it was considered smart and fin-de-siècle to read French novels, because they were supposed to be 'naughty', but it was not till the First World War made of France an ally that Stendhal, that giant of French literature, became generally known over here. Romain Rolland had had a certain popularity before the war, but his pacifism destroyed it. Proust became the god of the post-war novelists. The old gods of the nineteenth-century classics were dethroned and even some later theophanies. His influence was discernible in our leading writers, obvious in the less accomplished.
Another outside influence came from America. Before the war only a few American authors were at all well known over here, and they mostly belonged to the past. When I was a child my father's non-medical bookcase—otherwise a barren hunting ground—displayed a copy of Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad bound in a single volume. I had been told that Mark Twain was a comic writer, but my repeated efforts to read him provided even less amusement than Charley's Aunt. It was not till many years later that I came to read and re-read with unfailing delight his Huckleberry Finn. That book alone proclaims him a genius. But I doubt if he ever had much influence on English fiction, nor had those American writers of the tough school, Bret Harte, Jack London and Upton Sinclair. They were read and admired, but always regarded as exotics.
To balance the toughs there had been quite another school of American fiction. I refer to the transatlantic version of the Scottish Kailyard school of writing. In my mother's bookcase—separated from my father's by a whole forbidden library of medical text-books—was Timothy's Quest, an early work by Kate Douglas Wiggin. This I also had tried in vain to read and later years provided no successor with the magic of Huckleberry Finn, for I failed equally with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the tale which brought its author fame and fortune.
After that there came from the United States a veritable sunburst of which I absorbed only a single beam. I do not remember much about Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch by Alice Hegan Rice, but I owe it a grateful tribute because, read aloud to me by my sister Mona, it provided my first release from the misery of a long and painful illness. Mrs. Wiggs indeed had shown a certain homely wisdom, but wisdom soon melted away in the smiles of Pollyanna (the Full-of-Smiles Girl) who followed her across the Atlantic.
Perhaps syrup is less cloying when it is called molasses, and no doubt it provided a welcome change from the horrors on which the public was supping at that time. In any case, the popularity of a succession of Polyannas encouraged G. B. Stern and myself to make her the heroine of an unpublished collaboration entitled Borrowed with Thanks which we wrote in a small, depressing, cockroach-infested inn somewhere in the Chilterns. Our idea had been to borrow a character from all the best known novelists of the day and combine them in adventures of our own construction. Our hero was Michael Fane from Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street; we had also borrowed characters from Somerset Maugham, Hugh Walpole, Viola Meynell, W. L. George and many others, but I cannot remember what we did with them. There were attributions at the end of the cast such as: 'Love scenes by D. H. Lawrence', 'Theology by Mrs. Humphry Ward' (who had just published a sequel to Robert Elsmere called The Case of Richard Meynell). Otherwise nothing remains in memory but the general idea, which I still think was a good one, though the book itself probably was not, for no publisher would accept it.
I doubt if the sunshine school of American fiction had much influence on our own Kailyard, which under Barrie's direction had always been a wistful sort of place. But immediately after the war there was a new invasion by transatlantic novelists of a very different order. Some of these no doubt had been with us before, but as with France, a military alliance seemed necessary to make us truly appreciate the literature of another country. It must also be remembered that for most of the nineteenth century, when the peace and security of the Victorian era had provided a soil in which literary giants could flourish, America had been still in the pioneer stage of venture and experiment, coming to birth as a nation through internal strife and all that is most unfriendly to the arts.
But now war and peace had established her in the same position as ourselves, with the same vain hopes from one and of the other. We no longer imported only great names and bestsellers but a rising generation of 'younger novelists'—Fanny Hurst, whose Lummox had just made a stir, Sinclair Lewis, newly established with Main Street, Theodore Dreiser of An American Tragedy, and perhaps most significant of all in his influence on the novel, Ernest Hemingway with Farewell to Arms. Willa Cather did not, in my opinion, produce her best work till the nineteen-thirties, when she won praise in two continents for her magnificent Death Comes for the Archbishop, but that superb artist Edith Wharton maintained her fame among us, keeping her head well above the jostling crowd of younger people.
The trans-ocean traffic was still unequal, for this country was unable to offer American novelists the lecture opportunities that the United States provided for ours. Between the two World Wars almost every English novelist of note must have visited America, either to lecture or to write scripts for films. My father's death prevented me going when first invited, and it was not till my husband's and my own withdrawal from the Anglican Church made us both independent of time and place that I finally succeeded in arriving where I had long wanted to be. I must have been among the last batches, for Italy's war with Abyssinia started just after our return, to be followed by the Civil War in Spain and the general break-up of that world in which books rather than bombs were international exchange.
But as the sands ran out during the thirties it seemed as if more and more, and yet more and more, novels were being written; and that was in spite of the fact that biography had been brought back to life by the 'debunking' methods of Lytton Strachey. There were many new names, though perhaps fewer in Britain than in America, where a new school of fiction had been started by Thornton Wilder's Bridge of San Luis Rey. The thirties saw the rise to fame, if not the first appearance, of J. B. Priestley, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Graham Greene, and with these the literary future seemed to lie.
Indeed it did lie. For when New Writing revived after the Second World War, with a bright glitter of stars as its contributors, at least one critic pointed out that those same stars had been shining in the literary heavens for twenty years. The war, unlike its predecessor, had produced nothing that was both new and important in the way of either poets or novelists; so one was obliged to assume that being a New Writer was a purely literary status and had no more to do with the time of first appearance than being a Younger Novelist had to do with age.
The latter point had been decided in 1920, at a meeting of 'younger poets and novelists' convened for the purpose of sending a tribute to Thomas Hardy on his eightieth birthday. Hugh Walpole was in the chair and considered our first business was to fix an age-limit for those we were to approach for signatures and subscriptions. 'At what age,' he asked, 'does one cease to be a "younger novelist"?' He suggested thirty-five, and a murmur of consternation went through those assembled. I was safe at thirty-three, and so I suppose was Walpole or he would have suggested a higher figure, but most of the company feared they would be excluded. Forty, then? But no, that would not do either. Some of the most important names were attached to even greater ages. Forty-five left still some uncovered, and Hugh Walpole finally exclaimed—'Very well, then—say fifty. Surely a "younger" poet or novelist can't be over fifty!' But a little dark man stood up at the back of the room—I heard afterwards that he was W. H. Davies—and said apologetically: 'I'm afraid I'm fifty-three.'
It was therefore decided that being a younger poet or novelist was an entirely literary status. You could be one till you were eighty or never be one at all. It was your work, not you, that was 'younger'. And with that definition we have still to be content.
On our schoolroom bookshelf for many years stood a thick, shabby, brown novel, which according to its geographical position should belong to my sister Dulcie. Actually it belonged to my mother and I do not know for what reason it was banished to the schoolroom, but she proclaimed her ownership when once in a reminiscent mood she said to me—'I told your father he was not to come home without a copy of Cissie. He was not clever at buying books, but I told him I must have it, and that day he brought it home with him.'
Cissie, by Emma Worboise.
Does any eye but mine recognize that title of the eighteen-eighties and does anyone remember Ernma Worboise or any other book she wrote? All I know of her myself is Cissie, and perhaps that was all she wrote, but I do not think so, for though the author of many books may make a name with one of them I doubt if a single novel, especially at that period, would have penetrated into my family. We were not a literary household, and for my mother to have so set her heart on reading Cissie points to a certain amount of talk and discussion during afternoon calls. Or could it have been—for she was newly married then—just a sick fancy of pregnancy, and can I attribute my own literary tendencies to the pre-natal influence of Emma Worboise? If so, the influence is not entirely benign, for no one could be more completely forgotten.
I made several attempts to read Cissie and finally succeeded in getting within a measurable distance of the end. But it was a depressing story. I had not reached an age when I could judge it from any literary point of view, but the sufferings of the eldest daughter of a poverty-stricken doctor (it may have been the medical setting that brought Cissie into our house) discouraged me profoundly, and again and again I put the book aside and turned to something more in accord with my tastes and also with my years. But final perseverance showed me that Cissie's hard luck was changed by a carriage accident conveniently happening just outside her father's house. This brought the doctor wealthy patients, and Cissie ceased to be the household drudge. Whether she was also provided for in matters of the heart I do not know, for I was totally uninterested in such things. But I think there must have been a romantic issue in the book somewhere, though I do not remember it.
An author I remember even less clearly is Amy Reade, whose novel of circus life, Ruby, or Slaves of the Sawdust created quite a stir in the eighteen-nineties. I did not at that time read it myself, for it belonged to my Swiss nursery-governess who considered it improper on the strength of the dashes and asterisks with which its pages were sprinkled. But many years later I was in correspondence with Madame Reade Jamet (she had married a Frenchman and lived as dame pensionnaire in a French convent) and she lent me a copy of the book, which had, according to her, done great things for the reform and general cleaning-up of circus life. The slaves of the sawdust were not performing animals, as they would be had Ruby been written today, but young girls enslaved and maltreated by unscrupulous circus proprietors and ring-masters. Their story was told with much emotion and very little art, and the only part of it I remember is the part I read when the book was for a brief moment in my hands at the age of nine. But as it penetrated the House of Commons as well as our nursery its fall into oblivion seems even more tragic than the fall of Cissie.
Both Cissie and Ruby were stories for adults, but when I was a schoolgirl there was a writer called Emma Marshall whose books were considered highly suitable for young people. She wrote historical novels with an architectural setting—Under the Dome of St. Paul's and Under Salisbury Spire are titles I remember—and these were published in a uniform edition with graceful line drawings of churches and cathedrals as illustrations. She had a great vogue—more, I should say, among those who like to give suitable presents to the young than among the young themselves. No doubt she combined instruction with entertainment in an agreeable form at a reasonable price. But personally I found her dull and boring. Her style was flat and her characters never seemed to come off the page. I had passed the age that doted on L. T. Meade, but these half grown-up stories were not to my taste. The only one of her novels I really liked was The Parson's Daughter and that was a freak, for in writing it she had renounced the framework of ecclesiastical architecture which earned her the title of 'sweet, temple-haunting martlet' from an admirer, and substituted a gallery of portraits by Romney and Gainsborough. Romney's 'Parson's Daughter' married his 'Young Squire', and their story ended tragically, which was all in its favour where I was concerned. I read the book more than once before I passed on to the more adult but still youthful thrills provided by Edna Lyall.
Another writer for girls at this period was Rosa Nouchette Carey. I do not think there are any special writers for girls at the present day, at least not for the sort of girls who when I was nineteen or twenty read, as I did not, Rosa Nouchette Carey, Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey and Mrs. Philip Champion de Crespigny (who could forget such names?). There will always be special writers for schoolgirls, but the modern girl who has just left school reads, if she reads at all, what her parents read, and would think poorly of the literary rice pudding and lemonade which her grandmother considered a suitable diet for her mother at her age.
'The loveliest thing about a young girl is her bloom,' a middle-aged spinster said to me once long ago when she caught me reading George Moore's Evelyn Innes. 'It is sad indeed when she loses it. If you read that sort of novel you will lose your bloom.'
I doubt if in these days anyone troubles much about a young girl's bloom apart from her complexion, but at that time it was carefully preserved by a definite school of writing. This could be described as romantic-domestic. My memories are sparse, for I could not bear this sort of thing myself; but once when I was ill and defenceless I had one of those novels read to me. It was called A Houseful of Girls and was about a large all-female family, who had tremendous fun over the spring cleaning and finally all got married except one who stayed at home to be a comfort to her parents. Evidently thought of any kind was considered destructive to bloom, for there was never in these tales any reference to religion (apart from incidental churchgoing), politics or public events. This ruled out Edna Lyall, who gave her readers plenty to think about, though nothing that could do them any harm. Otherwise, at a time when there were so many novels besides hers that one would have thought eminently suitable for girls—-Stanley Weyman's, for instance, or Baroness Orczy's or Francis Marion Crawford's to name only a few—it seems strange that there should have been a whole school of fiction catering for a public which surely never before or since was so well provided for. But those writers undoubtedly had their reward or they would not have written, though I doubt if the public they reached was always the public they aimed at. My mother, for instance, adored this type of novel and would gladly have read nothing else. It seemed a cruel irony of fate that gave her a daughter who preferred Humphry Clinker.
That writers for girls in age or in mind should be forgotten by the next generation is not perhaps surprising or particularly sad. Oblivion is tragic only when it swallows what should be remembered, and we may ask ourselves: Has anything been lost that was worth keeping? I should say that it had. Some of the novels of Edna Lyall, for instance, seem to me as well worth keeping as some of the novels of Charlotte Yonge. Of course the term oblivion is relative, and I am using it only as equivalent to 'out of print', for obviously no book I mention here has been completely forgotten. Others besides myself must remember it. But to survive only in the minds of a few middle-aged or elderly people might have seemed a hard fate to those writers who enjoyed even a brief period of fame and prosperity.
I have already drawn attention to the little group of authors living at Hastings when I began to write. One might in a sense have called them retired authors, for they no longer produced much and their fame lay mostly behind them. Foremost among these was Coulson Kernahan, who had made a name for himself by writing what I can describe only and inadequately as pious allegories, such as The World Without a Child and God and the Ant. These were little more than booklets, but they had delighted and edified the first years of the century, and—though he also wrote thrillers—there hung about him somehow the mantle of a prophet.
On the other hand his wife, Jeanie Gwynne Kernahan, made no claims to be other than a commercial novelist. 'Every book I write,' she once told me, 'is sure of a two thousand sale to the libraries, but of course the reviewers never notice me.' In time it became apparent that on those two thousand copies the household depended rather than on the past glories of God and the Ant. She wrote at night—all night: 'for then I can't be interrupted and I am free to attend to my housekeeping during the day.' I suppose she sometimes slept, but I cannot think when. Memory must play me false when it shows her presenting me with a copy of her thousandth novel. It must have been her hundredth. Yet other writers have produced a hundred novels—G. B. Burgin, for instance—and I cannot get rid of the impression that Jeanie Gwynne Kernahan wrote more than anyone has ever written before or since. She was a brave, humble, industrious devoted woman, quite prepared I am sure to be forgotten while her husband's fame echoed down the centuries.
He was excessively kind to me and I would not like to say anything that might seem ungrateful, but it was very much the kindness of God to the ant—a kindly, benevolent god to an ant he wished to encourage, but certainly between us a gulf was fixed. I was abashed by the great names that rolled off his tongue. He knew practically all the established authors of the day and had a large collection of their letters and signed photographs. In his later years he became so obsessed by this that he refused ever to leave home, under the impression that, if he did, anything so valuable would be immediately stolen. His greatest kindness to me was when he invited me as his guest to a dinner at the Whitefriars Club and I had the surpassing thrill of shaking hands with G. K. Chesterton, Clement Shorter, Clive Holland and others whose greatness reduced me to trembling and silence.
Another Hastings author was Matilda Betham-Edwards, who in the past had won a reputation in France as well as in England for her educational work. She had also written novels, and one of these, The White House by the Sea, had just been published in the World's Classics, thus establishing her, she told me, among the immortals.
She lived in a tiny villa at the end of the quaint street of Georgian houses that straggles along the slope of the East Hill above the Old Town. Here I was brought more than once by a friend to take tea. It was made and poured into cups by her elderly maid outside the room where we sat round a miniature table laid with dainty fringed napkins, tiny plates and cakes and sandwiches so minute that I found it difficult not to swallow them in a single bite.
It was all, including the hostess, indescribably minuscule—all, that is, except her idea of her own position, which I fear was larger than life-size. Going to see her was like being received in audience and her relations with the other inhabitants of the street were more queenly than neighbourly. Like many writers she was sensitive to noise, even noises that most people would consider agreeable. Just opposite her lived a lady who was a gifted pianist, but if she played at an unacceptable time or played too long, a message would be sent across the road requesting silence. The same happened if anyone played the piano next door or even next door but one. It is a mercy she did not live long enough to have to contend with radio. Her worst experience was when in the First World War the troops stationed at Hastings inconsiderately sounded their bugles on the hillside below her house, and no representations to the military authorities could induce them to desist.
She was once persuaded to leave home and stay with a family who lived near Tunbridge Wells. They thought so highly of this achievement that they had an account of it printed and circulated among her friends. She made a condition that if she came there was to be no sound or movement in the house before nine o'clock. Rather strangely determined to have her with them in spite of this, her hosts contrived to arrange with their servants for complete domestic immobility up to that hour. But they had forgotten the farmer who owned the field beneath her bedroom window, into which soon after seven he loosed a herd of inconsiderately lowing cows. She left that day.
One of her hosts on this occasion was the novelist Sarah Grand, whom I once met at her house. I wonder how many remember the shock and sensation created by her novel The Heavenly Twins. I did not read it till some time after it was published, but I had always heard it talked of as something rather dreadful, possibly because the author was an advocate of Women's Rights. Of the book which I read in a sixpenny paper edition, I can recall very little. It seemed to me harmless and I dare say it was, but I was very young and innocent and possibly did not understand what was censured.
The novelist herself was a big, impressive, handsome woman, whom I remember dressed in black under a towering black hat. She was, like everyone else, extremely kind to me, but she too had that Olympian attitude, that sweep of condescension which then seemed characteristic of the established author towards a young beginner. I do not know if it is the same nowadays, but I rather think the situation is reversed.
I cannot take leave of those gods and goddesses now swallowed up by the Götterdämmerung of two generations, without offering the contrast of my single encounter with a writer who is not forgotten and never will be. From Thomas Hardy I received all the kindness without the condescension. He gave himself no airs that would distinguish him from any elderly gentleman with what might be called cultivated country tastes. We spoke chiefly of the country, Wessex and Sussex, and his only deliberate reference to writing, his or mine, was a joking order not to come further west than the Isle of Wight.
I had spent the day at Max Gate and in the evening he walked with me to the station. Here we met a farmer with whom he at once started a conversation on local affairs, in the midst of which he must have remembered his guest, for he introduced me, adding: 'She's just written a novel called "Green Apple Harvest".' This information did not seem to impress the farmer and the conversation closed over it. It was not till we were both seated in the train on our way to Bournemouth that he obviously remembered something, and diving into a bag produced a fine, healthy specimen of Cox's orange pippin: 'Now didn't Mr. Hardy say you liked apples?'
How greatly W. L. George would have approved of Hardy had he known him, for he certainly dwelt in no literary enclave, and—though George would not have approved of it for such a reason—this may have something to do with the greenness of his memory in the public mind. It was Dr. Johnson who said that an author's enduring reputation is not made by the critics but by the people, and I think that many names have been forgotten because of the narrowness of their appeal.
The great novelists of the eighteenth century were read not only by the intellectuals but the general public of their day, and the same may be said of the Victorian giants. Later on writing became much more specialized and though it would not be true to say that this is the reason why so much of it has been forgotten it has certainly had something to do with it. The public memory functions on the same lines as in the individual. We remember certain events because they are outstanding, others because of the circumstances in which they happened, others because of their consequences. So it is with authors. Those who are really outstanding are safe to be remembered in their own right. But many others survive more fortuitously.
An example of this latter type of survival is Mary Webb. For many years she wrote novels of a high quality which made little general appeal; and I doubt if she would now be remembered by more than those who knew her and admired her work while she was alive if after her death her name had not been brought before the public by a Prime Minister. Stanley Baldwin praised her in an after-dinner speech, the newspapers fastened upon it and bounced her into fame. Soon all her novels were being reprinted and in great demand among those who had never heard of her before.
To her friends it was tragic, for no one would have valued such widespread recognition more than herself. She was a timid little creature who, shy and silent, never missed a literary gathering. She took her work, the literary life and literary people all very seriously, and put the whole of herself into everything she wrote. I know that she was anxious about her own position, for on one occasion she expressed her relief when I told her that there were days when I too received no letters. She thought it a bad sign if an author did not have a heavy post, and would rather think the post office was keeping her letters from her than that none had been sent.
The question arises—would her name still be remembered if it had never been uttered by a Prime Minister? One cannot be sure, but I do not think so. She wrote six or seven very fine novels, but as studies of rural life they were limited in their appeal. Though sensitive to pain and to beauty, she created no memorable characters, and was without that humanity which has made Hardy's work live on in spite of its restricted setting.
I doubt if there is a parallel case in George Orwell, but it is just possible that he too might have survived only with the discriminating few had not the B.B.C. seen fit to smite the council houses with a television broadcast of 1984. He had a very different talent from Mary Webb's—a dynamic, intellectual, masculine talent in contrast with her poetic, sensitive, feminine one—and he counted, as she did not, in the progressive thought of his day. But I mention him in this connexion because, like her, he had only a restricted audience until given a boost by circumstances. With him this took the more remarkable form of the translation of his work from one medium to another. Animal Farm and 1984 made little impression on the general public until they were translated into the language of the cinema and television respectively. This literary metempsychosis is a new form of survival. But naturally it will affect the books themselves as originally written, and it is too early as yet to speak of the future. We must give the dust of publicity time to settle before we see what deposit of enduring fame it has left behind.
In another case where the dust has finally settled it should be easier to judge, and it certainly would be interesting to speculate as to what Oscar Wilde's position would be today without the impact on Society of his tragic downfall. Of course the situations are not parallel, for Wilde's catastrophe added De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol to his literary reputation. But we may ask: Could he have survived on the strength of that reputation alone? His comedies are brilliant, but they date outrageously, and his more serious work, Salome and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, does not detach easily from its background of peacocks' feathers and the Yellow Book. If he had died at the height of his fame and prosperity, death alone might have been enough for the same sort of survival as Aubrey Beardsley's—as the symbol of a period. But if he had lived to old age, written one or two theatrical flops, and ended perhaps after some years of silence. . . .
These are vain speculations, and it would be possible to contend that in no circumstances would these three writers have been forgotten. The surviving memories of Thomas Love Peacock and Samuel Butler proclaim that a lasting reputation can—despite Dr. Johnson—be built on a narrow base. Contrariwise, publicity alone will not make a man immortal. Real talent may survive without it, but without real talent Prime Ministers, television and the law-courts are of no avail.
The authors we come to next once stood high in popular favour without extraneous helps. But who now reads E. L. Voynich, Beatrice Harraden, Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, Tom Gallon, Guy Thorne, John Oxenham, Robert Keeble? The list could be much longer and made to include names that should not be in it, such as A. Neil Lyons and May Sinclair. It could also include those I have forgotten myself. But as it stands it is a fair sample of public inconstancy.
The Gadfly by E. L. Voynich created quite a sensation when it was published over forty years ago. It was held to be a work not only of great power but of high literary merit, and it was recommended to me by no one less discriminating than my friend Pansy, who had also recommended Gilbert Murray's translations of Euripides. She herself had read it with tears, and so did I. We and some thousands of others found this story of the illegitimate son of an Italian Church dignitary intensely moving, and only a few months ago I was discussing it with a little group of authors all of whom confessed to having once regarded it as a work of genius. The story, as I remember it now, was incredible, melodramatic and more than a little vulgar, but literary taste in those days was all for the 'powerful' in fiction, and it was not only the circulating libraries who spread the author's fame.
It did not last, for her second novel was a failure and I cannot remember a third. No doubt if she had written half a dozen novels of the same quality as The Gadfly her name might be remembered with those of Mary Cholmondeley, Rhoda Broughton, Lucas Malet and Mrs. Humphry Ward, who were all in high reputation at the turn of the century; but single-book authors seldom live long.
There is, however, rather a curious postscript to her story. In the 1955 spring number of The Author I saw a list of 'British Writers published in the fifty-three languages of the Soviet Peoples', which includes Shakespeare, Dickens, Defoe, Fielding, Shaw, Galsworthy, indeed most of our best-known authors, living and dead, but ends surprisingly with 'E. Voinich' and The Author's comment 'whoever E. Voinich may be'. Of course I cannot be sure that it is E. L. Voynich, but that tale of the wicked and immoral ecclesiastic might well have appealed to the Russian translators, and The Gadfly may now be in great demand in one or more of the fifty-three languages of the Soviet Peoples. But The Author's comment shows how completely the writer is forgotten here.
Another single-book novelist was Beatrice Harraden. Actually she wrote several novels besides Ships That Pass in the Night, but that was the book which made her reputation and by which she is still remembered by an older generation of readers. It is, I venture to think, a much better book than The Gadfly, more balanced, more credible, better conceived and better written, but I doubt if any publisher would venture a reprint today. Other novels crowd upon my memory, among them the Anglo-Indian stories of B. M. Croker and Flora Annie Steele. They would now be hopelessly out of date and yet a most interesting reconstruction of the India that is gone, the India of the Army and the memsahibs, the ayahs, the Eurasians, the young English girls sent out to find the husbands that did not offer themselves at home—a whole vanished phase of British middle-class society which was once of great importance to the nation but has fortunately not been allowed to outlive its day.
A vanished way of life is also shown in the novels of Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, who was at the height of her popularity at the same time as Mrs. Croker and Mrs. Steele. She wrote of the British middle-class as it lived at home, and her novels, though definitely more adult than those of Rosa Nouchette Carey and her kind, were always considered 'safe'. If we were to re-read them now we should probably call them 'cosy', but here again I doubt if any publisher will give us the chance.
None of those writers obtained notoriety by anything scandalous; for that aid to circulation we must turn to the men. Robert Keeble shocked the nineteen-twenties—which, though they were considerably less shock-proof than today, implies a high voltage as compared with the eighteen-nineties—with Simon called Peter, the story of a clergyman who renounced his orders and went sensationally to the bad. It was the proud boast of the late Bertram Christian of Nisbet's that he had declined Simon Called Peter though the firm had published all the author's earlier work. Some of this I remember as both distinguished and devout, but it certainly had not the sales of his later, and I think last, book. A different form of shock tactics had been tried some years earlier by Guy Thorne with When it was Dark, but this book strictly belongs to those which owe something to outside help. The Bishop of London recommended it from the pulpit of St. Paul's. His praise was echoed from other pulpits throughout the country, with a resulting sensation in the pews.
The name of Tom Gallon can never be quite forgotten, for it is attached to a literary award. But I doubt if many or any of those who have benefited by it know much about his work. I confess that I cannot remember a single title, though he had at one time a very great vogue. His novels were all in the Dickensian manner, and he wrote a great number.
John Oxenham was another voluminous writer, who combined uplift with romance. He had all the status of a best seller in those early nineteen-hundreds when it was always profitable to bring God into a title. He also wrote a book, My Lady of the Moor, about another best seller, Beatrice Chase, whose own personal blend of piety and whimsy found innumerable readers.
I do not think we have done those authors an injustice in allowing them to slip out of mind. They provided a past generation with entertainment and received in return their meed of praise. I hope that they also received good incomes, for I am pretty sure that some of them at least took the same view of authorship as W. L. George, and I doubt if many of them expected much more or would quarrel with our times for letting their work go out of print.
It is to be noted that they were all novelists, and the novel has necessarily a more uncertain life than other types of writing. This is not to cast a slur upon it—indeed, as I hope to show later, I hold the novel as an art-form inferior only to drama and poetry—but, being a work of imagination, it must rely for survival entirely on its literary merits, whereas what is called general literature has an independent value in its subject. A poorly written history or biography, if not superseded by something better, will continue to be read for the information it provides, and if the subject be of sufficient interest, will be consulted as a standard work for many years.
Do writers in general hope that their work will live and have I been too sweeping in my attribution to so many of the views expressed by only one? I do not think so—that is, if we take into consideration a writer's whole lifespan and not just what he hoped and believed of himself at the start. Often a young writer is a poet even if he writes in prose, and poetry carries hope and imagination to heights that sober experience will never climb. I suppose that at one time most of us soar, but either our wings are singed off, or else like larks we fold them and drop contentedly back to earth, where we may still find things better worth having than fame.
It is more than thirty years since I sat with Compton Mackenzie and Trevor Blakemore in a little wood on the summit of the island of Herm. On the hillside below us stood Prince Blücher's empty castle, looking like a piece of discarded stage scenery, while on the other side spread the dazzling blue floor of the sea, eddied with currents flowing among hidden rocks, and dotted with those queerly shaped 'moies' and 'grunes', which at first sight I had taken for an anchored fleet.
'You will find,' said Compton Mackenzie, 'that once you sell more than twenty thousand copies, the critics will lose all interest in you. You will automatically become a best seller and considered unworthy of serious note.'
That is the gist of his words, anyhow, and I listened to them respectfully, for they were his, but they hardly concerned me, for I could not imagine my books ever selling to such an astronomical extent. I think we were talking of Hugh Walpole.
Twenty thousand copies would not be considered such a vast sale nowadays, when best sellers in this country alone often reach twice that figure. But I doubt if I myself have passed it more than twice, so I cannot claim to be what I am sometimes called, a popular novelist. I speak of sales on first publication only, not those that dribble on to some high figure through cheap reprints and overseas editions.
If more writers than would now like to acknowledge it have hoped at one time that their work will live, probably more still have hoped some day to write a best seller. Even if they shared Compton Mackenzie's view of the results they would willingly pay the price of a little critical neglect for the sake of a short cut to wealth and fame. But there is, I am convinced, one unfailing law for best sellers—they can be written only by accident. They are like the weather and no more susceptible to planning than a thunderstorm. By this I do not mean there is anything fortuitous in the continued sales of authors who have captured the popular market. As long as they continue in the line of their first success they are pretty safe, for on the whole the public is faithful. But it is that first success which cannot be accounted for by any rule.
I have known an author deliberately attempt to write a best seller, carefully weighing and choosing ingredients and cooking them according to his considered opinion of the public taste, but I have never known such an attempt succeed. One reason, I think, is the common assumption that best sellers must be bad. I do not know how this belief arose. Some would say from pride and some from envy, and some from best sellers. But for an author purposefully to write down to an imaginary level of human intelligence is to court disaster. Human intelligence is seldom so low that it does not realize when it is being written down to.
Besides, I do not believe that all best sellers are bad. Some of them are very good indeed. If we assemble half a dozen more or less at random—Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat, If Winter Comes by A. S. M. Hutchinson, A Town like Alice by Nevil Shute, The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene—we must agree if we are honest that certain of these are very much better than many that have won distinction with more modest sales. Indeed, some are so good that we may never have thought of them as best sellers; yet they all had sales far beyond Compton Mackenzie's estimate.
I do not deny that many best sellers—perhaps the majority—are bad; but the point is that they are all sincere. The author has put his best into even the worst of them and is the last to realize how bad they are. Another interesting point to note in this connexion is the improvement in public taste. I should say that the quality of a best seller is now immeasurably higher than when I was a girl.
In those days the two acknowledged best sellers were Hall Caine and Marie Corelli. No doubt they were not the first to sell widely—Dickens and certain other nineteenth-century novelists might be termed best sellers, and of course there is always Ouida; but Victorian methods of publication, with their three volume novels and 'fortnightly numbers', were so unlike ours that it is difficult to compare results. Hall Caine and Marie Corelli both had enormous sales in the modern manner. I have little fear of contradiction when I say that neither of them was a good writer; but they both took themselves and their work with intense seriousness—they are indeed laboratory specimens of best-selling sincerity.
On the strength of some unfavourable reviews Marie Corelli refused to let her later novels be exposed to the critics. Hall Caine, as befitted his sex, was of sterner stuff and chose rather to ignore their opinion. He was, I should say, much the better writer of the two. His work had drive, and when as a schoolgirl I read The Deemster and The Bondman I was completely carried away by the taste of strong meat. Marie Corelli was not considered suitable reading for the young and I do not think I could even attempt to read her now. I once heard her speak at a Women's Club luncheon and thought her a dainty, attractive little person. Of Hall Caine I saw more, for we once stayed at the same hotel, where every evening he took a Shakespearian stance at the dinner table, his dome-like forehead resting on his hand. He never spoke to me, but he told my mother I wrote too fast.
Both Hall Caine and Marie Corelli belonged to the sensational school of fiction and to the days when 'it's just like a novel' was applied to any startling or apparently incredible situation. They believed in drama, and Hall Caine no doubt also considered himself a realist—an opinion in which he must have been encouraged by the libraries' ban on his The Woman Thou Gavest Me. But they were both at heart romantics, and romance is the surest way to the public heart. Their successors in the market served it plain and without trimmings. I am thinking of Charles Garvice and Florence Barclay. Here we have another best-selling pair, alike and yet unlike, for Mrs. Barclay made her reputation with a single novel at a single blow, whereas with Garvice it was more by weight of numbers.
He was incredibly prolific, and though I cannot claim a close acquaintance with his work I should say he was not nearly so good a writer as Hall Caine, nor did he write as well as Mrs. Barclay, though here again I cannot rate her so high as her predecessor. Her first novel, The Rosary, is most readable, but some of her later work is very bad indeed. The critics of course ignored her, but unlike Marie Corelli she did not resent it. She was a clergyman's wife, humble, friendly, ignorant of the world and of human nature, but gifted with a romantic imagination which could pack a novel with the secret fantasies of the female heart. Both she and Garvice wrote mainly for women, whereas men had enjoyed both Marie Corelli and Hall Caine.
Of a very different order was Baroness Orczy's success at about this time with The Scarlet Pimpernel. Here was what could unhesitatingly be called a rattling good story, full of drama and suspense. But here again was a strong romantic interest. When the book first appeared I was going through a superior phase with the classics and did not condescend to read it. But my sister Mona was young enough to enjoy it in both its aspects of adventure and romance. She quoted with rapture the scene in which Sir Percy Blakeney kneels down and kisses the pavement at every spot where Lady Blakeney's little feet have trod. All I thought was what an ass he must have looked while he was doing it, and I wondered if he had proceeded on all fours or whether he had stood up after each kiss and then knelt down again. In such conjectures my mind was not only out of tune with my sister's but with the minds of several hundred thousand other people.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is still a household word and I doubt if it will ever be forgotten. It achieved fame in many other media besides print, and as a play, as a film, as a broadcast, it is safe in the memory even of those who no longer read. Just as Anthony Hope enlarged popular geography with a supernumerary Balkan State, so Baroness Orczy gave a popular name to those who make it their business to assist escapes from political hot-spots. The Scarlet Pimpernel is in our language with Ruritania.
The book has another claim to honour. In spite of some romantic exaggeration it is thoroughly wholesome, a fine, healthy, satisfying meal for schoolboys and schoolgirls of all ages. This cannot be said of all best sellers, certain of which owe their success to their appeal, sometimes veiled, sometimes open, to the dark side of public psychology. Even in some of Mrs. Barclay's novels there was a pathological undertow, never consciously realized, I am quite sure, by the author or by ninety per cent of her readers, but giving to those it did not repel a certain cryptic satisfaction. The same could be said much more strongly of the novels of Ethel M. Dell, who leapt into fame out of Fisher Unwin's First Novel Library (a fine enterprise which one would like to see reborn) with The Way of an Eagle. Here violence was the theme, with erotic implications that in later novels became much stronger. Love and violence also swelled the sales of another spinster novelist, E. M. Hull, author of The Sheik, whose remarkable picture of desert life started a public demand for sheiks that was fostered by the cinema until it died of its own absurdity.
But a best seller is not as a rule hampered by its lack of resemblance to life, for the reader will provide that as long as the book gives him certain aspects that he recognizes and approves. It is a case of wish-fulfilment, though the wish, as in a dream, may be distorted out of knowledge, and the grateful dreamer-reader rationalizes his delight into a conviction of the author's truth and skill.
'That woman knows life. She's seen it—she understands it. It's real life you meet in her books.'
Thus spoke long years ago a friend of mine, an honest, practical, hard-working woman, who had brought up a family under immense difficulties, and the author she spoke of was Elinor Glyn.
None of these novels treated sex as openly as it was to appear in the best sellers of the next generation. From Here to Eternity, The Naked and the Dead, The Cruel Sea are novels that would have roused the clucking indignation of those who read Ethel M. Dell, Mrs. Barclay and even Mrs. Glyn. Undoubtedly their outspokenness had something to do with the magnitude of their sales. The reason why the police intervened in an exhibition of D. H. Lawrence's paintings was that the milling crowds outside the gallery convinced them that something besides art was on view.
I cannot myself altogether deplore the substitution of the outspoken for the unspeakable, and the literary quality of the three books I have mentioned was very much higher than any of the traumatic fantasies they succeeded; but in my opinion they erred not so much as to what they put in as to what they left out. They were indeed the polarization of Polyanna and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. A far closer approximation to life combined with a still higher literary merit is to be found in that rather unexpected best seller of the nineteen-twenties, The Constant Nymph. I call it unexpected, because its setting is so unlike that of its kind. Most best sellers ignore the arts, but here is the musical world all round us; the characters and the story are well within it, and the drama depends for its full effect on a certain amount of sympathy with its ways.
The fact is that here at last we have a book that sells largely on its merits. There are other attractions but they are all legitimate; the author has done no violence to truth or honesty or human nature. Even if one swallow does not make a summer, here is the true harbinger of a larger flight of best sellers written by authors who are also men and women of letters J. B. Priestley, H. E. Bates, Nevil Shute, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene. Margaret Kennedy proves herself of their company by the novels she has written since The Constant Nymph. I doubt if any one of them has been a best seller in the same sense, but each one of them is of high quality, and proves that she has not aimed merely to repeat the pattern of success.
It is interesting to speculate on what has so changed the literary market that books which twenty years ago would have been read by a comparatively small fastidious number now sell in their twenty (or fifty or even seventy) thousands without finding themselves in the critics' waste-paper basket. Some would say it is because the tosh-loving public now reads no more, having become an addict of television or radio, just as the quality of stage plays has improved since the cinema removed the tosh-loving playgoer to a more congenial atmosphere. I think this is half the truth. The other half is that a great impetus was given to reading during the last war. The blitz and the blackout not only made public entertainment precarious but shut up men and women for long hours in A.R.P. and N.F.S. control-rooms. There, waiting on the telephone, many took to reading who had seldom or never read before.
Paper rationing had drastically reduced the popular reading matter of newspapers and magazines, so that such invigilators were forced to rely on books. These were supplied from the libraries of various welfare organizations, some of which were very good indeed. Naturally they included a certain amount of rubbish, but there were also a number of classical authors and well-known writers of our own day—Wells, Galsworthy, Bennett, Conrad—whom many inexperienced readers met for the first time. One could not fail to be impressed by the pleased surprise with which these men and women realized that they enjoyed books which till then they had shunned as 'highbrow' and unlikely to entertain them.
The same sort of thing was happening in homes, hospitals and air-raid shelters, where many started to read for want of anything better to do and read good books for lack of worse. A new reading public arose in consequence, and its improved taste ran no risk of contamination from current fashions in the book trade. There were no best sellers, because there could be no big sales. Authors were for the most part limited to a quota based on the publisher's paper allowance, and a vast public demand for any single book could not have been supplied.
To a taste so purged by austerity the riotous successes of an earlier age would have no appeal, and it would be impossible to find a big sale for Charles Garvice, Marie Corelli or even Hall Caine at the present day. Their public has vanished, having either moved up into a higher literary class or turned for its satisfaction to other media. In addition to the radio, television and the cinema, there is now all the output of 'space fiction', and for those who still cling to romance the bright paper jackets of the Twopenny Library, where the names of so many unknown authors suggest dual personalities for those we know.
Nearly all the best sellers I remember have been novels, which is hardly surprising, since romance, sex, and sensation all thrive more luxuriantly in fiction than in fact. When I was a girl Lady Cardigan's Memoirs shocked Edwardian society and achieved big sales, as for very different reasons did Ian Hay's First Hundred Thousand at the beginning of the First World War. But for the most part memoirs, biographies and indeed all general literature had very little popular appeal. Some might regard it as another sign of the improvement in public taste that recently this situation has changed, and booksellers' returns for the past year (1954) show that works of history, biography, criticism and travel have had bigger sales than fiction.
Naturally I accept the facts but I cannot agree as to their significance, for I will not accept the notion that the novel is of itself inferior to other kinds of writing. A bad novel is no worse than any other bad book, and a good novel can be more nearly a perfect work of art than any other type of literature except perhaps a play or a poem. When I read Mr. Patrick Leigh Fermor's Traveller's Tree I enjoyed and admired a travel book of quite unusual quality, but it did not give me the deep aesthetic thrill, the movement of wonder, with which I read his Violins of Saint Jacques and saw the same theme transformed by creative imagination into unforgettable beauty. It might be argued (though I shall not attempt it) that it is better to read for instruction than for entertainment, but both these motives are beside the point, for in my opinion it is the novel's position as a creative art which gives it a value independent of its abuses.
The non-fiction best seller is, of course, no novelty in America. But American best sellers are in a category apart, not only because of the magnitude of their sales, but because the size of the country allows for several literary publics. There was a large enough public interested in life in a trappist monastery to secure an enormous sale for Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain, which as Elected Silence had only modest success in Britain, and at the same time steal no readers from Kay Boyle, Herman Wouk, Erskine Caldwell or other tycoons of the fiction market. There is also a large enough selective public to make 'nation-wide best sellers' of Charles Morgan's Sparkenbrook and Rosamond Lehmann's The Ballad and the Source. But apart from this I do not think that a non-fiction list which includes such works as How to Make Friends and Influence People, Worlds in Collision, Flying Saucers Have Landed or even The Kinsey Report need involve us in shaming comparisons.
Many years ago when I was still a green young author I received a letter which perturbed me greatly. The writer was an old school friend of my sister Thea, who for years had been an heroic figure in my eyes because she wrote short stories which were sometimes accepted by monthly magazines. 'Poppy has a story in this month's Royal,' my sister would say and we would read it very respectfully and in my case enviously, for I was still some years short of publication. I did, however, send her a story of my own, which she very kindly criticized, offering the invaluable advice to choose next time a subject I knew something about. But when I finally achieved publication with a full-length novel she was not among those who congratulated me, and the letter she wrote me after I had repeated the offence showed plainly the reason why. She considered my books improper.
Our family had long known that she was prim, for when she acted as bridesmaid at my sister's wedding, she had caused a certain amount of domestic inconvenience by refusing to let the hairdresser attend her unless somebody sat in the room to act as chaperon. But though I knew of this it had not prepared me for the onslaught. The main objects of her attack were a row of asterisks, the function of which she had misunderstood, the fact that one of my characters, a farmer, read The Sporting Times and a quotation from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The first she had told me suggested something 'too terrible to think of', the other two were evil boasts of knowledge usually veiled from decently brought-up girls. At the end of her letter she switched over to my first novel, the last page of which, she asserted, contained a phrase so shocking that she could conceive only that it had been written in ignorance.
This was perfectly true, but the curious thing is that the ignorance extended also to my father and other elder members of my family, as well as to friends to whom I showed the offending passage with an earnest request for enlightenment. No one could help me, it all seemed quite blameless, and seems so still.
I was reminded of this episode when in Bow Street police court a police officer stood in the witness-box and read a passage from Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. I wonder how many of the general public remember that cause célèbre of the nineteen-twenties which brought almost all the well-known authors in London to Bow Street as witnesses for the defence.
It is a curious story and even now I do not understand it. Radclyffe Hall was a talented poet and novelist who had recently distinguished herself by winning the Femina-Vie-Heureuse Prize with her novel Adam's Breed. It's successor, The Well of Loneliness, was a serious and sympathetic study of sexual inversion in women. It was well written and intelligent and received good notices from the leading journals and reviews until, six weeks after publication, it was violently attacked in a popular Sunday newspaper. So far not a single reviewer had raised any moral objection to the book, which had been taken for what it was, a serious study of a serious subject, written with commendable restraint. But now prosecution followed on attack, and the most natural defence seemed to be an assemblage of author-witnesses to give their testimony as to the work's true nature.
It was an assemblage which might have been called a galaxy, for almost every author of repute was there, some two dozen of them, squeezed into the back of the court. There had been a preliminary meeting at which Bernard Shaw had spoken. He told us we should not be allowed to give evidence, that the prosecution would take the line that the book's literary status was irrelevant. Nevertheless the authors flocked to Bow Street—only to learn how right he was.
But the prosecution had their difficulties. In order to prove that the book was an 'obscene libel', likely to corrupt the morals of anyone into whose hands it might fall, an obscene passage had to be read from it, and this the author had churlishly failed to supply. We had been prepared for the subject itself being regarded as inadmissible and to see the action fought on those lines; but that apparently would not 'lie' in law—though in view of some later effusions one might wish it did—and it was necessary to convict from the text. Hence the appearance of the police officer in the witness-box to read the passage which reminded me of my own experience of long ago, for it did not appear to contain the smallest impropriety.
Not only to myself but to all the other seasoned writers present this description of two women bidding each other a sad farewell at a railway station seemed entirely void of offence. What the official mind had seen in it was indeed, in the language of my own persecutor, 'too terrible to think of', though I have thought of it quite a lot. The policeman was succeeded by Desmond McCarthy, who stood silent in the witness-box for the rest of the morning while King's Counsel debated as to whether or not he should be allowed to give evidence.
There was a strange foredoomed air about the whole proceeding and, apart from Bernard Shaw's warning, I doubt if anyone was surprised when Mr. McCarthy finally left the witness-box without having uttered a word. But now things became livelier, for the defence having lost its first line set up another, which was that the relations between the two women were no more than romantic and sentimental, a schoolgirl crush transferred to adult life and innocent of sexual implications. This was listened to rather incredulously by everyone, and it led to an unexpected burst of drama in the afternoon. On our return to the court after the luncheon interval we found the defendant waiting for us in what could only be described as a passion of indignation. Not only did she repudiate her Counsel's defence, but she had told him that if he persevered with it she would shoot herself in open court in front of us all. As a result of this threat he had promised to retract what he had said. It is not a common privilege to sit watching an eminent K.C. eat his own words, and I thought it rather ungracious of some of my fellow-witnesses to say they would have preferred the alternative entertainment. But in order to collect this large body of evidence which was never heard the defence had combed all the cliques and coteries, and from the beginning such mutterings could be heard as—'I hope I shan't be asked to say it is a work of genius' . . . 'I don't want to stand in the witness-box and declare it is well written' . . . 'If they want it regarded as literature I hope they won't call on me.' To these the prosecution's blocking of the evidence must have come as a relief. Of course, The Well of Loneliness was not a work of art or a work of genius, but a serious, capable book by a serious responsible author, and written in a style which, whether good or bad, was (in fact by virtue of a certain heaviness) most unlikely to attract anyone susceptible to corruption from it.
But after that day's work its condemnation was a foregone conclusion. The court sat another day, but the witnesses did not attend, and scarcely needed to read the result in their evening papers.
All this happened thirty years ago, but recent events seem to have brought it close to us. For some reason determined efforts have lately been made to clean up the literary scene, and the result has been a number of trials, ranging from the normal activities of the police in suppressing unabashed pornography to the prosecution of reputable publishers and responsible authors under the same act that prosecuted Radclyffe Hall. The first roused little comment, except when a bench of magistrates ordered the confiscation of The Decameron, but the second led to three or rather four remarkable trials.
The Well of Loneliness had been condemned by a single voice, that of the Bow Street stipendiary magistrate, Sir Charters Byron, but The Philanderer, September in Quinze and The Image and the Search were tried before a judge and jury. The results were interesting if only by way of contrast, and not having read any of the works involved I am unable to say whether my sympathies are with the jury who acquitted the first or the jury who condemned the second, or with the two juries who failed to agree over the third.
My impression is that both the two first juries relied on the judge's opinion rather than on their own. For Mr. Justice Stable in his summing up was clearly in favour of the author of The Philanderer. He refused to regard sex as a subject in itself obscene or its frank treatment as necessarily leading to corruption. The book must be judged not by single scenes or passages taken out of their context but as a whole and also in relation to the public for whom it was written—obviously in this case a sophisticated public whose ideas were already formed by experience. The problematic young person 'into whose hands it might fall', need not be considered, as such would be unlikely to read it. One could not write books under the threat of their being read by someone for whom they were never intended. This judgment was thankfully received by the writing profession as a whole, but their satisfaction lasted only till the Recorder of London had summed up in exactly the opposite direction. He asked the jury what they would feel if they saw September in Quinze in the hands of their young daughters, with the result that the author and publishers were found guilty and heavily fined.
In the case of The Image and the Search either the judicial lead was not strong enough or the juries at the two successive trials contained warring elements that could not be reconciled. Indeed the system of trial by jury seems more than likely to break down when the verdict is to be based not on fact but on opinion. Our method of scrambling a jury together out of the citizenry produces a mixture of types which though perfectly capable of agreeing on a verdict according to the evidence when the evidence consists of facts, is not so likely, indeed is most unlikely, to agree on matters involving taste, education, upbringing, knowledge of human nature and of books, especially when all these are clogged up with a subject where judgment in the average man is already prejudiced by subconscious motivations.
Some years ago a very charming old lady told me with a stricken face that she had read a most dreadful book. She had found it in a friend's house and though soon aware of its appalling nature she had been unable to put it down. As a result she was thoroughly ashamed of herself and being a devout Catholic had told her confessor, who had breathed fire in consequence.
My first reaction was to ask the name of the book, and soon I was stutter-butting like a machine-gun through her story. 'But—but—but . . . .' I knew that book and had read it myself, or rather a part of it, for after the first few chapters I had found it uninteresting and returned it to the library. It was an American work which had been published by a most reputable firm of publishers and had moreover won the Pulitzer prize. It might be described as 'adult', but nothing more sinister than that. Yet to my dear old friend it was pornography, and had it been brought into court as an 'obscene libel' and she been on the jury, both religion and morality would have obliged her to condemn it. Imagine a jury, one half of which is made up of herself and others like her and the other half of myself, and, say, the awarders of the Pulitzer prize, and you have a pretty good example of an immovable mass being met by an irresistible force.
No doubt age has a great deal to do with these matters, for nothing has changed more in the last two generations than our attitude towards them. When I began to write, words like 'damn' and 'hell' were seldom printed in full but were represented by an initial and a dash. Throughout the nineteen-twenties which were supposed to be so uninhibited, the word 'bloody' was always queried in my proofs, even on one occasion when not used as an oath. Also queried was the expression 'in the family way', which I had learned from my mother. One was driven to the conclusion that there were no more chaste ears on earth than those of a printer's reader. But now all is changed, and it is my generation's turn to be shocked by words which we ourselves should not dream of using and never saw before in print.
It is the same with situations. When I was a girl the most daring situation an author could contrive was a man and a woman living together without being married, and it was that situation which brought an early novel of mine under fire not only from that lily-maid called Poppy but from two local booksellers, one of whom summoned me into his presence and gave me a long lecture on its moral shortcomings. He happened to be the purveyor of those battered blue French novels to which some might have attributed my downfall, but as I doubt if he was able to read them I will not accuse him of hypocrisy. I remember that I was very much surprised by it all and considerably shaken, though I fear that his bad opinion of me would have been confirmed had he known that the part of his discourse that upset me most was the incidental information that the book gave the wrong month for drilling turnips.
These were only small-town reactions. The rest of the country was less easily excited. Nevertheless, those novels which were given notoriety by the library censorship that functioned for a short time in King Edward's reign would seem harmless enough at the present day. I cannot remember all of those whose works were regarded as untouchable, but Hall Caine and W. B. Maxwell were among them. In the end it was found that the censorship far from reducing the sales of the novels in question actually increased them, so it had to be abandoned in the interests of that same morality it was established to defend.
I do not think that any attempts have been made since to revive it. There is of course always the Irish censorship, of which I once erroneously believed myself a victim. I had been told that a novel of mine was on the Index, and well aware that nothing could be more unlikely I imagined that the speaker had confused Dublin with Rome. But on a visit to Ireland I found that the book had not been banned over there at all. I also found Dublin literary circles inclined to regard the censorship quite tolerantly as one of their national jokes. 'It's the priests in their fatherly kindness trying to protect us from a knowledge of those things we tell them on Saturday nights.' I was then told of a typically Hibernian occasion when a high literary award was made to a novelist whose book was afterwards discovered to have been banned. All the arrangements were complete for a complimentary dinner at which the author was to be presented with a specially bound copy of the work in question. But in the circumstances all that could be done was what the Dodo did when Alice won the Caucus-race—'We beg your acceptance of this elegant novel,' presenting her with the copy she had been asked to provide.
It is worthy of note, however, that some, if not more of the best novels of this half-century were written between the year nineteen hundred and the First World War, when freedom both of subject and treatment was so very much more restricted than it has been since. All Wells' best work belongs to this period, also the best of Arnold Bennett, Galsworthy and Conrad. The restrictions imposed by public taste had apparently no adverse effect on the literary quality of books and plays. Indeed I think it could be argued that in some quarters their removal had the same effect as a gardener's abandonment of the pruning knife.
It would seem as if after the explosion of war, when the first clouds of hate and anger have cleared away, there is an outfall of moral laxity. In the nineteen-twenties we shook our heads over the Victorian prudes who condemned Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, in the nineteen-fifties we wonder at the prosecution of The Well of Loneliness. With each successive war more inhibitions disappear. The twenties had a few left, but as far as I can see the fifties have none save what the law imposes. The tendency of fiction must always be to exaggerate, as more and more authors go in pursuit of a limited number of situations and mechanisms. At one time the figure of maternal mortality in novels must have about trebled those in real life, while before the motor-car came on the scene the number of literary carriage accidents must almost have equalled the slaughter on the roads today. Throughout the country one marriage in ten ends in divorce, but on the bookshelf it must be more like one in three. That being so, it is not surprising that the position of sex in fiction is out of all proportion to its position in the life of most intelligent human beings. Now that the romantic trappings in which it was wrapped up in Victorian and Edwardian times have been stripped off (though in certain quarters the ghastly word 'glamour' adheres instead), the externals of love have been given an almost religious significance.
This is undoubtedly due in part to the influence of D. H. Lawrence, for whom sex assumed the mystical power of religion. He writes of it in terms some of which might have been, some of which actually were, used by St. John of the Cross. He reverses the old jibe against those who were supposed to find in religion a substitute for sex by obviously finding in sex a substitute for religion.
'And here Lawrence the genius, like other geniuses, is representative of an active movement of thought and feeling among more ordinary men. He is the spokesman of all those who today, more or less consciously, make sex a religion. Rationalism has robbed them of faith in God, and the spiritual love-life of union with Him. Being men and not calculating machines or vegetables, they must have a life concrete, intense, passionate. They therefore turn to sex, the biological image of spiritual life, its passion and union—not for what it really can give and has given in all ages, but for the content of that other and supreme love-life which it reflects.'
I quote here from Mr. E. I. Watkins' Bow in the Clouds. He is not dealing specifically with writers, but his study of Lawrence, from which I have taken only a short passage, is most penetrating and illuminating.
How unlike is all this to the attitude of the eighteenth-century novelists. I choose them for comparison rather than the Victorians, because they are as outspoken in their language and bold in their choice of subjects as the writers of today. But their attitude is entirely different. They regard sex as a normal if turbulent human activity, which needs to be kept in order but often escapes its bonds, causing situations which provoke a tolerant shrug, horror or a smile, according to the author's temperament. But they would one and all recoil from the idea of it as a mystical experience—'a mystery, the reality of which can never be known . . . living body of darkness and silence and subtlety, the mystic body of reality.' Indeed I can imagine no one more shocked than Fielding were he ever to pick up in the Elysian fields a copy of Lawrence's Women in Love. We may similarly entertain ourselves with the picture of Smollett reading Christopher Isherwood's World in the Evening, or Sterne wondering what to make of Rosamond Lehmann's Echoing Grove, while to Richardson we would give E. Arnot Robertson's Devices and Desires, because the heroine, having maintained that favourite commodity of his, her 'virtue', for several months among a horde of Greek bandits, suddenly and improbably flings it away as a preliminary to entering a select boarding-school.
We know that Richardson regarded Pamela as a work of high morality, and though that opinion was not shared by later generations nor universally held by his own, at least it might be said that the book was unlikely to corrupt the minds of the young. Any young girl who attempted to follow Pamela's example would reap nothing worse than disappointment. Similarly Fielding is always outspokenly moral, and so—apart from his wearisome practical jokes—is Smollett. Sterne indeed received a certain amount of criticism in his own day, but only for being, as he says, like a small child tumbling about in play and exposing much that is generally hidden. In none of these authors could one find any encouragement to break marriages, hearts or the commandments in the name of love.
If they had, I imagine that public opinion would have been much more clamorous in its disapproval than it is today. For we seem with our restored freedom of speech to have fallen into a certain confusion, and to have decided that now we are once more allowed to call a spade a spade it does not matter how we use it. Our heroines can be allowed pre-marital experiment without a stain on their characters, and lovers are given to the most unlikely wives. Divorce has become respectable and can be used in quite 'nice' novels as a substitute for the death of the unwanted partner. Both religion and morality have been curiously twisted by quite well-meaning people into shapes that used to be the shapes of their enemies.
That being so it seems futile to prosecute obscenity under laws that are as out of date as the McNaghton rules. Even out-and-out pornography might be less likely to corrupt than a subtle denigration of ideals—ideals which the utmost eighteenth-century laxity never lost sight of. In a modern version of Joseph Andrews either Lady Booby or Mrs. Slip-Slop might find themselves the heroine with Joseph himself written off as a prig. Again our sympathies might be asked for Booth in his betrayal of Amelia, and Clarissa Harlowe be dissected as a psychopath. Apart from conjecture, there are on offer, in the cheap forms most easily available to the young, all the corruptions of false romance and glamorized wealth. As it would be impossible as well as undesirable to prosecute works of this kind, and as the prosecution of more serious efforts has so far resulted only in ridicule, could we not accept the belief that law and morality are not inevitably synonymous? Just as a man can be arrested for stealing his neighbour's watch but not for stealing his wife, so 'obscene libels' are not necessarily approved if we cease our attempts to suppress them by means that only give them greater publicity.
The scene is Hugh Walpole's flat in Hallam Street, and I—greatly awed and deeply thrilled but as usual completely silent—am having tea with him and May Sinclair. They are deep in the discussion of a novel he is writing—The Prelude to Adventure, an early work, as yet I believe unincorporated in the canon of his reprints. The climax of the story is a mystical experience which overwhelms his hero while engaged in playing football, and both he and Miss Sinclair have a lot to say about and to quote from Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven.
I think I must have resented being left out of the conversation, for when at last it veered in my direction I announced rather bluntly that I had never read anything by Francis Thompson. For a moment they looked at each other, then Hugh said in a shocked voice—'I don't know what we're to make of that confession.'
A similar situation is approaching now. I have already explained that the 'all' of my title is relative, and though these pages are crammed with the names of authors and the titles of books, the reader has doubtless noticed many omissions. Some of these are blameless, but not all. There are books that I ought to have read but have not—and if this is to be in any sense an autobiography the time has come to consider these, for no doubt they shed as much light on my character as those I have read. That this light is not always flattering has been shown by the only case I have mentioned so far, Louisa Alcott's Little Women. I have already confessed the unworthy reason for my failure to read it as a little girl, but a still more disabling confession must follow. My lapse over Francis Thompson has been abundantly retrieved since the Hallam Street tea-party, but my attempt similarly to retrieve myself over Little Women ended in an even more humiliating failure. Only a few years ago, conscious of the gap in my reading and hoping to find in the book the pleasure and entertainment others have found, I bought a copy and settled down to enjoy it. But exactly the same thing happened. I found myself reacting to the same episodes in the same way, and I gave up the attempt once for all.
Let me say this, however, in my own defence. My reaction may not have been entirely due to the persistence of a selfishness so crass that I could not bear even to contemplate unselfishness in others, but to the persistence of certain brain traces which a second reading had restored to potency. This persistence is doubtless responsible also for the pleasure with which many of us re-read our childhood's favourites. In the Katy Did books for instance, where the moralizing is even heavier than in Little Women, I found on re-reading, all the accumulated pleasures of memory. When reading in 1956 the book one first read in 1896, one does not read with the eyes of 1956 only. The first reading is there, and the second and third with their stored affections to add to the pleasures of rediscovery. On the other hand if one approaches an old-fashioned children's book for the first time in 1956, its effect on a mature mind is likely to be disappointing. One cannot take hold, if there has been no earlier grasp. A friend who constantly re-reads Little Lord Fauntleroy attempted to communicate her pleasure by lending me the book. She had been brought up on it and in each re-reading had revived the happy impressions of childhood, but I who had never read it before found it quite unreadable.
I did not read it as a child for the sound reason that it was never given to me. I was given a Lord Fauntleroy doll which I greatly disliked, because I disliked boy dolls anyhow and thought the clothes of this one ridiculous. There were also some unfortunate little boys who had earned my contempt by wearing long curls and velvet suits, so I might not have liked the book even if I had read it.
What one did not read as a child was decided by grown-up people rather than one's self. If my elders failed to provide a book that book would remain unread, without I trust a stain on my own character. But I cannot find this excuse for not having read Kingsley's Westward Ho!, for this was one of my sister Dulcie's books and for years I was familiar with its title and binding. I actually made one attempt to read it, and I cannot tell why that failed, for I liked adventure stories and historical stories and this was both. I did, however, intensely dislike the same author's Water Babies (though again my reason for doing so eludes me) and this may have started me off with a prejudice which explains my failure at least in part. Several years later Pansy gave me Two Years Ago and I read every word with the keenest pleasure, though this may have been on account of the giver.
It is rather too late now to repair the omissions of my youth and I have given my reasons for believing that any attempt to do so would end in disappointment. Otherwise I should be tempted to read Moby Dick. For one thing, Mr. Somerset Maugham has included it in his list of the ten best novels, for another the film that has been made of it suggests an exciting story which would have lightened the conscientious labours of my later teenage, when I read so much that bored me just because it was a 'classic'. Another book I missed at the same period was Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
My reason in this case was financial. The work was published in Everyman's Library in six volumes at a shilling each. If I had bought it I should have mortgaged six weeks' pocket-money and at the same time deprived myself of six other books that something told me I might find more interesting. So I kept on putting it off; with the result that my period of classical enthusiasm passed without it. By the time I was able to afford the purchase I no longer wished to make it, and that disinclination still prevails. More than one friend has told me that I have missed a fine thing, but though I might now afford its six volumes, even though the price of the original six would buy only one, that does not make them less than six ... so once again a figure defeats me.
But these are juvenile errors, for which no doubt I shall not be held greatly to blame, either at the time or for some later failure to repair my loss. I do not expect to see the shocked glance or hear 'I don't know what we're to make of that confession' until I acknowledge the gaps on my shelf at the present day. One of them is very large, for it involves the whole of Trollope except Framley Parsonage and Is He Popenjoy?
The first I read during my period of conscientious reading, to which no doubt many later aversions are due. I do not know why I chose that special novel—for it was my own choice and my own purchase in the World's Classics, bound in leather, too. Probably some magazine or newspaper article had recommended it. Anyhow I bought it, read it and found it inexpressibly dull. Many years later a friend who was a Trollope addict lent me Is He Popenjoy?, and once again I am puzzled by the choice. But he insisted that it was better Trollope than the more popular clerical novels, and realizing that my experience with Framley Parsonage was really nothing to go by, I jumped at the chance of becoming a Trollope addict myself, with over fifty novels to gratify the passion which in the case of Jane Austen had to be satisfied with six. If only I could find in Trollope even half the delight I found in Jane Austen, and many were those who would find as much or more, I was in my middle age discovering a treasure that would last me for the rest of my life.
But once again I was disappointed, and this time I think I know why. It was Jane Austen herself who robbed me of what might well have been a very cosy experience. I had been reading her constantly and regularly for nearly thirty years and her vital language, salty humour, sharply incised yet roundly studied characters were with me all the time I waded—yes, that is my word—through Trollope's prosy style, in which his characters struggle for life like sheep in a swamp. The contrast is that between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the former of which is so much nearer than the latter to our own day. In comparison with Trollope Jane Austen is modern. No doubt his present vogue is partly due to the revived interest in Victoriana, and my inability to read his novels is part of my recoil from the art of Rex Whistler, Victorian fashions in house decoration and so on. No doubt also that I am the loser in every way, but so it is and the gap on my shelf remains.
Another gap is smaller, but perhaps still more serious. I cannot read Henry James. At the Hallam Street tea-party he was under discussion when the subject was not Francis Thompson, but in his case I wisely concealed my ignorance, and in time I learned to talk about him as if I had read him, an art in which I fear I have become proficient.
I need not have been ignorant, for once again my sister Dulcie had provided the means of initiation. Her bookshelf contained one of the lesser-known of his works—I must humble myself still further by confessing that I have forgotten the title—and I once asked her if it was a book I might read, for this was during my prudish-priggish phase. She replied that it was but that I should find it difficult, as it was written in a very involved style. This discouraged me and not long afterwards I was still further discouraged by certain parodies that came my way. It is true that Henry James very soon became the fashion, and authors whose work I admired were said to model themselves upon him, but I have always had a strong sales-resistance and this universal literary reverence by no means disposed me to overcome my dislike of his labyrinthine style.
This dislike of obscurity has grown with the years. I do not care how hard and knotty the subject of a book may be if only it is clearly presented. But even fiction defeats me if the style is mannered, and this applies to French as well as English. I disappointed W. L. George because after a long course of novels by various authors I failed with Flaubert's L'Éducation Sentimentale. Equally difficult to read I found a translation of one of my own works. It is a question of the writer's effort communicating itself to the reader. If the best word is chosen only after a long search that search should be concealed, and in Henry James' work the sentences often seem to grope after their own meaning. But then I have not read Henry James.
I think he is the only really important English or American author with whom I have failed completely, most others having left some shreds of themselves in my hands. I read only the first few chapters of Tolstoy's War and Peace, but I had already read his Kreutzer Sonata and Anna Karenina. I might even have finished War and Peace if my family had stayed longer in Montreux that winter. But when we moved on into Italy the volume had to be returned to the library when it was only just begun. It is true that I might have found another copy in England and the fact that I did not even look for one must I fear be used in evidence against me.
At that time, or rather a little earlier, readers and critics alike were praising the novels of William de Morgan. I was naturally stirred by the idea of fame achieved at so late an age after a life spent in very different pursuits, and was as eager as anyone else to read Joseph Vance. But once again I was defeated by a rambling style. In this case the rambling involved no strain, but the Dickensian echoes both in style and character-drawing which delighted so many of my contemporaries prevented me from enjoying the book and I do not remember that I attempted any of the others. Evidently I am over-sensitive to manner, which seems strange when I remember how often as a girl I must have struggled through works written in a totally different vocabulary and idiom from my own. What is there in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy that kept glued to the page the eye that wandered from the pages of Joseph Vance? I cannot find the explanation in a younger eye, for I read both books at about the same age. But it is possible that conscience co-operated in the case of the first while taking no interest in the second. When I reflect on my present reading habits I sometimes wonder what books I should or should not have read had my conscience never been involved.
There are of course many more gaps on my shelves than these, but I do not think they stand in the same need of apology. Even at the age of fifteen I did not believe it my duty to read every book that ever was written. Some might think I should explain why I have never read Voltaire and others why I have not read Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua. I doubt if I can explain either, for there was a time when the former's arguments would have been as grateful to me as the latter's would have been later on—and I may still read both.
For among the books I have not read are many that I still hope and intend to read. If I had written these lines only two months ago I should probably have linked with the name of William de Morgan that of a very different type of novelist—I. Compton-Burnett. For many years I found her unreadable, and the praise of her admirers was as the meaningless clamour of those who worship strange gods. I myself bore all the marks of the Philistine—I complained that her novels were only dialogue, that the characters all talked alike, that they did not belong to the story and so on. When J. B. Priestley in one of the Sunday papers investigated her cultus and found it more of a craze, I murmured 'the Emperor's clothes. . . .'
Then came what can only be called my conversion. It was one of those mental switch-overs in which a pattern that had seemed meaningless as black on white is suddenly filled with meaning by the discovery that it is really white on black. I. Compton-Burnett's novels are not pictures, they are designs, and bear the same relation to life as the stylized rose on the wallpaper bears to the realistic illustration in Flowers of the Field. One does not quarrel with the wallpaper flower because it has a symmetry and formality which the model lacks. We obtain both from the book and from the wallpaper the essential meaning of a rose—indeed there may be more abstract meaning in the wallpaper design than in the naturalistic picture. I. Compton-Burnett is definitely an abstract novelist.
We have become used to abstract painting and abstract sculpture, even to abstract poetry, and now here at last is the abstract novel. What else can we call this formal pattern of story-telling out of which only ideas emerge? The characters are invariably divided into three groups—servants, children, and adults—which in their turn are split into two households. They converse in a stylized language which no one speaks or ever spoke, but which yet conveys most clearly the thought of the speaker. There is practically no background, and such inevitable interventions of the author as occasionally break up the dialogue amount to little more than stage directions. Emotion is entirely suspended, and death, illegitimacy, adultery, incest, are swallowed as calmly as bread and cheese.
Compare this with the average novel wherein the characters, so far as they are not directly presented by the author, express themselves in a variety of conversational styles, tricks and gambits, where the background is elaborately filled in and the story, for the most part unintricate and unsensational, is worked through all the emotions of the psyche, and you are comparing Edward Wadsworth's diagrammatic Embarquartion pour Cytherè with Watteau's luxuriant painting of the same subject.
Yet so final is I. Compton-Burnett's art that its abstraction and austerity seem to enhance rather than limit the life-likeness of any situation she chooses to create. Her characters are as living and in spite of their uniform speech as sharply differentiated as those of the most expansive novelist—in Mother and Son even the two cats have distinct personalities. The story does not touch the heart but it stimulates the mind, and the method of its telling crackles with wit and observation in dialogue that as securely reveals the character of the speaker as any varieties or tricks of speech.
This novelist is not merely original. She is unique. Practically alone in English literature she has no imitators. None of her many admirers has so far attempted the sincerest form of flattery, and with good reason. I do not think we could tolerate an I. Compton-Burnett School of fiction, for unlike other schools it has only one class. The stream-of-consciousness novel, the Proustian novel, the Dickensian novel can ring endless changes on themselves, and their pioneers can be followed without any risk of mere imitation. But in this case the design is so simple that it admits only of exact reproduction, and any adaptation would destroy its essence. Also it must be consummately well done, for it has been done no other way by what is probably the only novelist that can do it.
There is a further point to consider. Could we read many such novels, however well written? When with a deep sigh of satisfaction I closed Mother and Son I did not at once, as I should have in the case of any other author who had so delighted me, rush to order more books by the same hand. I shall doubtless read them all in time, but they must be spaced out—probably as far apart as their actual dates of publication. To sit down and read, say, six I. Compton-Burnett novels in succession would be like sitting down to a six-course dinner consisting entirely of caviare. The addict would find that bad for the palate as well as the digestion—time must pass and other food be eaten if he is to recapture the original savour. So promising myself a treat in the future not too far away, I open a novel by Monica Dickens.
I do not want to exaggerate the effects of reading on character, but the influence of a book is probably as strong as any to be gained from most human contacts. After all, a book is the voice of a fellow creature, calling through the print, perhaps from somewhere close at hand among our own interests and occupations, perhaps from across the world, perhaps from across the ages. It is one of the many forms taken by experience, and through reading it we may find ourselves transported into an entirely new field of perception. Even if we do not choose to remain there we probably shall not leave it as if we had never entered it.
Here is a trivial and personal example. In Miss Rosamond Lehmann's delicious portrait of youth and innocence, Invitation to the Waltz, the little heroine prepares for a visit to London by putting on not only her best dress but her very best silk underclothes; the reason being, as she tells her sister, that if she meets her death in a street accident she would like the newspapers to describe her as 'the body of a well-dressed woman'. Ever since I read the book I have been unable when setting out for London to prevent myself choosing my clothes both visible and invisible with a view to this contingency.
It might, of course, be said that the book did not so much give me the notion as make me conscious of it. In which case it has helped me to know myself better—another advantage to be gained from books. These trifling influences and revelations might be indefinitely multiplied; for accepting suggestions and criticism from a book is like accepting them from a stranger—so much easier than when these things come from within the family circle.
But if I consider the major incidents of my life it is more difficult to tell if or how books have influenced me. My marriage, for instance, had as far as I can see no connexion with anything I have read. The position of marriage in books is peculiar, for in the great majority it has always been regarded as the goal and ultimate reward of love, while in a minority—though a minority that is steadily increasing—it is no more than the beginning of regrets and complications. I am writing of novels; of course, for marriage in history and biography is much as one observes it in life. But the novel has inherited the fairy-tale tradition of 'they lived happily ever afterwards'. In all the early novels marriage involved the disappearance of the principal characters and was the end of the story. It is true that Pamela reappears as a married woman in Pamela in High Life, but that was a sequel called for by the almost pathological curiosity of Richardson's public, on whom this first incursion of the novel into ordinary female life had much the same effect as The Archers and Mrs. Dale's Diary on their publics today. Otherwise, it is only in the last pages that Tom Jones marries his Sophia or Humphry Clinker his Winifred, and even at the turn of the century when plots became more complicated and horror shared the scene with love, Jane Austen can remark 'the anxiety which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity'.
That perfect felicity can be questioned in couples already married—Parson Adams may be henpecked, Mr. Bennet may despise his wife and make fun of her before her children, Lord and Lady Castlewood may quarrel in public—but for the hero and heroine the curtain rings down on a stage lit up with hope and glory. For them everything will be perfect—perfect felicity.
That was the attitude to marriage on which my youth was fed, first in fairy-tales and then in fiction, and yet—oddly enough—I never wished to be married. This did not mean that I took no interest in men; I did, and would have liked to find myself more sought after by them than I actually was. But in my dreams and plans for the future I never saw myself as a married women, and was inclined to look down on those of my friends who did. I remember feeling shocked and disappointed when Pansy, at the beginning of what promised to be a triumphant university career, told me that her great ambition was to marry and have a large family of children. I saw myself as a successful writer living alone in a cottage, and actually selected my future abode in the countryside beyond Hastings. Later on I added a service flat in town, but in both these places I dwelt alone.
It was not the marriages of my family or of my friends which caused these unlikely day-dreams. My mother had been married twice, each time most happily. Her happiness with her first husband I could know only by hearsay, but her happiness with my father was obvious every day of the year. My sister Thea had made a happy, successful marriage, and none of the young married women we knew seemed to regret their state, even those who had made what appeared rash choices. Indeed divorce might not have existed in the professional middle-class society in which I was brought up. It was not till I was very much older that I met unhappy or unstable marriages and by then I had learned all about them from books.
It was not observation or experience but books that first taught me that marriage, which I had begun by thinking dull, was also difficult and could be dangerous. The 'happy ever after' novel was already going out of fashion when I started to write and marriage often began instead of finishing the story. At first it nearly always survived its vicissitudes; misunderstandings were cleared up, infidelities forgiven, and husband and wife achieved in the end their own version of 'perfect felicity'. It was not till much later that they set to different partners and we were back in the old days of 'boy meets girl', with the difference that one, if not both, was already married and the interest centred as much on getting rid of the old marriage as getting on with the new.
These novels had no more influence on me than the fairy-tale sort—if they made marriage appear more interesting they also made it appear even less attractive. The only, occasional, change in my attitude was when I fell in love and found myself wanting to marry a certain man. But it was definitely Tom, Dick or Harry, not just anybody, and when the business was over my wish for marriage went with it. Indeed at the beginning of these affairs, before my heart was engaged but I could see what was coming, I would often feel fear and reluctance, as if I were expecting to be asked to give up something I wanted to keep.
What changed my attitude was nothing that I read but, curiously enough, something that I wrote. I do not think it is usual for authors to be converted by their own works, though it has happened before. Not long ago Catholics were surprised to see a book written by one of their number published by the Rationalist Press, the explanation being that the author had been converted to Catholicism in the course of writing a commissioned work against it. In my own case the commissioned work was nothing more intellectual than four articles on marriage and family life for a woman's weekly paper. But somehow the planning and writing of these articles showed me how entirely selfish and sterile my plans for my own life had been. To live and write where and how I liked, was all that in substance they amounted to. I was in my thirties and a successful novelist, but I could not deceive myself with the thought that the world would be poorer if I did not write another line. I had, like so many unmarried women, lived too long in my parents' home and was willing to pay the price of independence with solitude. Since Pansy's death I had never dreamed of living with another woman, and I felt no religious urge to consecrate my life to God in a convent or to my neighbour in practical good works. If I was not to end up utterly withered as a human being I must marry, and I had better be quick about it, for I was no longer so very young.
At that moment there was no one with whom I could possibly fall in love, so in cold blood I decided to accept the first man who asked me, whether I was in love with him or not—always provided that I liked and respected him. This resolution did not result in my marrying without love but in my marrying a man of a totally different type from those that had hitherto attracted me. In the past I had yielded to feelings that were stronger than my judgment and had been willing to risk a life in which my husband and I while superficially united would have been fundamentally apart. I cannot lay down my experience as the law, for I have known some very happy marriages where the husband and wife had not apparently an idea or a taste in common, but I now see clearly that I am personally unfitted for a marriage of this type and it is more than as well that I did not make it. The marriage I made has lasted over thirty years without a single regret.
No doubt it is unrealistic to expect anyone to be influenced by reading in such a matter. Men and women marry in response to a biological urge and did so for thousands of years before a book was written. It is true that this same biological urge, ennobled by love, has been the inspiration of poets and storytellers from the very beginnings of literature, but it was not literature that first ennobled it. And if our moralists are inclined to blame trashy novels and magazines for the lower standards of today, they should remember that these are not there to create a demand but to supply it. The trash is already in the minds of their readers.
When, however, we turn from marriage to religion the case is altered. We are not guessing—we know for certain that in respect of religion many lives have been changed by books. Tolle lege, tolle lege are words that have been spoken to many besides St. Augustine. Newman was impelled to leave the Church of England for the Church of Rome largely through reading the early Christian Fathers, and numbers have moved in the same direction through reading Newman. Edith Stein, the Jewish philosopher-Carmelite whom Hitler slew at Auchswitz, 'read herself' into the Church on the works of St. Teresa of Avila. St. Ignatius of Loyola read the lives of the saints as he lay wounded and as the result exchanged an earthly for a heavenly chivalry. Many more such stories come into one's mind—they could be endlessly multipled.
So I hesitate to claim that my conversion to Rome had nothing to do with reading. On the surface I appear exactly the sort of person who would 'read herself' into Catholicism, as indeed I had many years earlier read myself into Swedenborgianism. But it is a fact that I read absolutely no Roman Catholic apologetic until I had already made up my mind, when on the advice of a friend I read in a translation Karl Adam's Spirit of Catholicism.
I cannot say, however, that books influenced my change of religion no more than they had influenced my marriage, for though I read no apologetic or indeed any specifically Roman Catholic writings as such, my spiritual reading as an Anglican was almost entirely from Catholic sources, even though in many instances these had been specially adapted for Church of England readers.
When Baron von Hügel set about the religious training of his Anglican niece his first idea was to recommend to her only books written by members of her own communion; but he very soon realized that this would be a starvation diet. The Church of England has produced nothing to compare with the writings of St. Francis of Sales, Laurence Scupoli, Augustine Baker, Fenelon, de Caussade, St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, to name only a few. The only Anglican writer who approaches them is Jeremy Taylor, but though I tried hard I found myself unable to read his Holy Living and Holy Dying, in spite of the unforgettable language in which it is written. On the historical side there is, of course, Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity (and it is a Catholic who has called Hooker 'the English Aquinas',) but I am thinking of devotional books, the spiritual reading on which the religious character as distinct from religious opinion is built up.
These in my case came almost exclusively from Catholic sources. I began at the age of fifteen with The Imitation of Christ. This I fortunately had in a complete edition, though the parts which the editor thought incompatible with Anglican doctrine were enclosed in square brackets. I adored this book and read it again and again before my religious life became dissipated in occult fancies. But it is a curious fact that when years later I took it up again it had, as far as I was concerned, lost much of its attraction. I was oppressed and overpowered by what von Hügel calls 'the world-fleeing element' in à Kempis' thought. So much of it seemed negative, censorious of that which is evil only in abuse. I know that this is an unusual reaction, and though I have von Hügel on my side, I do not attempt to defend it.
The Confessions of St. Augustine was another early favourite of mine. I read this many times before passing on to St. Francis of Sales, whom I met first not in his own writings but in an enchanting contemporary portrait The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales by the Bishop of Bellay. This led me on to The Love of God and The Devout Life, which were published in an edition specially prepared for Anglicans, and were well supplied with footnotes correlating the Saint's teaching with that of contemporary Anglican divines, such as Cosin and Taylor. We know that he was read in other communions besides his own. Characters as different from each other as James the First and John Wesley carried his works in their pockets, for though a militant Catholic, specially appointed to recover the lost diocese of Geneva, both his preaching and his writing so transcended the controversies of his day that to hear him or to read him was a religious experience even for those who were not of his faith.
I must include St. Francis among those authors whose books have directly influenced me, if only in trivial matters, for it is to him I owe the substance of a most successful short story. In The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales the saint tells how a mother whose son had been murdered stretched Christian charity and forgiveness to the point of sheltering his unwitting murderer. In his case the setting was Italian, but its transfer to the Kent and Sussex borders is about the only change I made. The story was first published in John o' London's Weekly, just after the First World War, and after a long career through various collections and anthologies is about to appear (much to the author's surprise) in a magazine devoted to Science Fiction. I owe the saint this acknowledgment of his inspiration.
Another debt is more obscure, for it amounts to little more than the thought after reading in succession The Devout Life and the Love of God that the ideal marriage would be that of Philothea and Theotimus. I do not pretend that this thought consciously influenced my choice of a husband, but even lying dormant in my mind it probably had its share in making my marriage a success.
Among other Catholic devotional books I read or attempted to read as an Anglican were Laurence Scupoli's Spiritual Combat, which repelled me with its mixture of floridity and hardness, like a Victorian arm-chair, and The Hidden Life by Jean Nicholas Grou, which with the opposing qualities attracted me as much as it had attracted my Presbyterian mother whose gift it was. I also read—though this came later, after my marriage—the Sancta Sophia of Augustine Baker. Of Anglican books I read none or almost none and these were controversial rather than devotional, maintaining my position as an Anglo-Catholic against the Church of Rome on one side and my own church on the other. Every year the Bishop of London recommended a special book 'for Lenten reading', but these were nearly always pale, washy stuff, as he had to choose a work that would not offend any of the warring sections in his diocese. On the whole, then, my spiritual reading was Catholic. I doubt if I chose the best—both St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila are lacking—but I do not doubt that a Catholic system of religious thought was throughout the years being built up in me. And though, as I said, this thought contained no apologetic, it nevertheless began in time to find itself at war with my Anglican expression of it, and I should not be surprised if it was that hidden conflict which finally led to my change of faith.
But what about the Bible? anyone might ask. Surely a child born as long ago as Queen Victoria's jubilee was brought up on the Bible and taught from it at school; and surely the Bible had as strong a share in forming that child's character as any haphazard collection of Catholic pious writings.
The answer is that I was indeed brought up on the Bible. I knew the principal Bible stories before I could read, through having had read to me Line Upon Line, which dealt with the Old Testament, and The Peep of Day which disposed of the New. Both these works were Protestant and Fundamentalist and very much more entertaining to the youthful mind than the actual Scriptures themselves. These I did not really encounter till at the age of nine I went to school, when my sister Mona and I were each presented with a large Bible in a black, shiny cover. She, as I have already told, traded hers away, but mine survived until my confirmation, when my mother gave me a beautifully produced and bound copy of the Authorized Version, which I still possess.
At school I 'satisfied the examiners' in knowledge of the Scriptures, and in my early teens was persuaded by a friend to join an organization rather cumbrously entitled Our Bible Reading and Missionary Band. This involved reading a daily portion of Scripture, normally in private but once a month aloud, when we met at certain members' houses and each read a verse in turn. We read as far as I can remember almost exclusively from the Old Testament, and it always seemed my luck to get a verse choked up with Hebrew proper names, for which I had to find my own pronunciation. A rich and abundant tea made up in some measure for what I suffered on these occasions, but I never felt really happy or at ease, for not only was I becoming more High Church in my sympathies but also a little nauseated by the Bible worship which this rigorously Low Church and Protestant Society indulged in. When I left school I took the opportunity also to leave the Band, and I am afraid that its activities combined with those of the examiners induced me not long afterwards to give up reading the Bible altogether.
For many years I never read it or heard it read except in church. During those years I lost my belief in the religion in which I had been brought up, and with that naturally went my belief in the inspired Word on which I had been told its teaching was founded. Those were the days when Modernism was flying about the Church of England like sparks in a stubble fire. Anglican divines shook their heads at its forcible extinction in the Church of Rome and foresaw many things that never happened. What they did not foresee was their own Bible-reading flock in danger of losing its faith with its Book.
By the time I was grown up the Old Testament had been made to appear to me and to many others as a mere bloodthirsty jumble of Jewish history and folk-lore. Nor had the New Testament been spared, for the authenticity of most of it seemed to be held in doubt, while the Godhead of Christ had declined from Bishop Gore's doubtfully conservative estimate in Lux Mundi to the near-Unitarianism of Canon Streeter. Many, of course, rose in defence of the old orthodoxy, but they were hampered by the grave-clothes of a Protestant theory of literal inspiration. It had been the letter rather than science which some years earlier had killed Bishop Wilberforce's challenge to the British Association.
My interest in these controversies was part of the increasingly superior attitude I maintained towards 'organized religion'. The only good I got out of it was the reading of Dr. Charles's Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudo-epigraphia, a truly fascinating collection of ancient documents which, though their religious value may be no greater than their authenticity, shed a most interesting light on the canon of Scripture and helped bridge the gap—so much wider in the Authorized Version than in the Catholic Bible—between the Old and the New Testaments. In it I revived all the blisses first bestowed by Dr. Smith's Smaller Classical Mythology and passing on to other studies of the same nature, including the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, was actually moved to poetry. It is a curious fact that as only unhappy love had power to inspire my verse, so only a groping faith could give religion a voice. I could sing the songs of a broken heart, of alien folk-lore, or later of questing Anglo-Catholicism, but these were all marching songs for the road only, and ever since reaching my journey's end I have been dumb.
Though I had given up Bible-reading in the accepted sense I was in course of time brought back to a certain interest in the text by my occult preoccupations. 'Gematria' or the Hebrew science of numbers, sent me wandering on a new track, and Swedenborg with his theory of 'correspondences' gave new life to the old dead letter. My escape, as I see it now, had been largely from the sentimental Bible-worship of my school society and the snippet reading which had accompanied it. I must have been nearly thirty when I decided to start reading the Bible again, but as I would read an ordinary book, not in 'portions', but one or two chapters or even several chapters at a time. I began with St. Mark's Gospel, which my Modernist dabblings had taught me was the purest and least fabled of the four, but I had not read more than one or two chapters before I found myself drowned in tears.
The vision of Christ that thou dost see Is my vision's greatest enemy. Thine is the Friend of all Mankind, Mine speaks in Parables to the blind, Thine loves the same world that mine hates, Thy heaven-doors are my hell-gates ... Doth read the Bible day and night, But thou readest black where I read white.
The Christ I found on re-reading the Gospels was not necessarily the Christ of William Blake, but nor was He the Christ I had expected to find there. I found a stern, sorrowful, lonely figure, very different from the 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild' of the children's hymn, for though patient with children of all ages and full of compassion for the griefs and sufferings of mankind, He burned with indignation against men's indifference towards God and injustice to one another; to all who opposed Him He showed Himself completely intolerant.
Nor could I find the lovable but self-deceived prophet and moral teacher of Renan's Vie de Jésus. If He was not in the fullest sense what He claimed to be, the Son of God, He was a victim of paranoia, one of the least lovable forms of madness. His moral teaching was only a small part of His gospel compared with its directly religious and doctrinal aspects, and though much of it was revolutionary—too revolutionary even for our times—much of it was not new. His concern was only for the Kingdom of God and for those things to which the world, no more then than now, paid little heed. It was in vain that both His friends and His enemies tried to drag Him into the controversies of His day, even those that seemed nationally and morally urgent.
At the time of the General Strike I was present at a little gathering of good, well-meaning people who met together in the hope of finding a way out of the mess. A constant phrase heard then was: 'If Christ were here today He would'—whatever the speaker thought the best course to take. It never seemed to occur to anyone that if the Son of God had been incarnate in 1926 He might have refused to be drawn into a political struggle between capital and labour ('Lord, speak to my brother that he divide the inheritance with me'. 'Man, who made me a judge over you?') just as He had refused to be drawn into that between the Jews and the Roman power.
I sometimes wonder what some Christians would make of Christianity if Christ had lived not in Roman-occupied Palestine but in German-occupied France. The two situations are almost parallel. There was in each case the occupying military power, also the puppet government, Pétain's or Herod's. Then there were the collaborationists, men who in their own interests served those of the enemy, and finally there was the resistance movement of those who on patriotic grounds opposed both occupier and collaborationist, looking for deliverance, sometimes in unlikely places.
The Jewish nation being a theocracy, the national resistance was primarily religious, made up of those who zealously followed the Law of Moses and all the minutiae of observance that had been added by tradition. The Pharisees were not just the smug, narrow-minded hypocrites of popular imagination, but patriots whose patriotism had taken a religious disguise, and the publicans were the collaborationists of Roman occupation, traitors to their country and in many cases the robbers and exploiters of their own countrymen. The word publican is one of the many that in the course of the last three hundred years has completely changed its meaning. St. Matthew did not keep a public house and 'this man eateth with collaborationists and sinners'.
It may seem strange to some people when I say that the Bible did not become for me a true part of religion until after I had joined the Catholic Church. Until then it could be impressive, moving, inspiring, enlightening, but never really devotional. The Catholic attitude towards the Scriptures is so different from the Protestant that it has given rise to the idea that Catholics are not allowed to read the Bible. One reason for this is that the Church does not hold every part of Scripture to be of equal value to everybody, and recommends certain parts more than others for general reading; whereas for the old-fashioned Protestant every word not only of the original language but also apparently of the translation was directly dictated by God Himself. Evelyn Underhill had a story about a preacher at a revival meeting who held up a copy of the Authorized Version declaring: 'Every word between these covers comes straight from the Holy Ghost'—to be answered by a voice at the back of the hall: 'Aye, and the covers too.'
Where a Catholic child, if brought up according to the mind of the Church, would be given a book of the Gospels, I at the age of nine was presented with an entire Bible, most of which was incomprehensible, and some of which, if it had appeared between any other covers, would have been snatched away from me. I can recall my sister Mona innocently looking up from her reading to ask:
'Father, what's a wore?' My father jumped. 'Wh-what book are you reading?' 'The Bible, Father.' No answer to that.
We met all sorts of strange words and inexplicable events. If by mistake one overran the Scripture Union portion by a single verse one was apt to land in a mystery. But nobody ever made the smallest attempt to stick the pages of the Bible together with stamp paper. I do not think they did us any harm, and when I grew older I developed the habit of looking up in the dictionary words I could not understand, since grown-ups when asked to interpret were apt to be evasive, if not hostile. As a result I obtained my earliest sex-knowledge from sources more accurate and austere than many. But surely that is not why one reads the Bible.
The idea of the Bible as milk for babies is I am sure at the root of many of those misunderstandings that have turned a number of thoughtful people from religion. The Old Testament in particular is something very tough and raw, requiring the most careful treatment if it is not to give its readers indigestion. There is a sickening page in Sir Laurence Jones's A Victorian Boyhood where he describes how at Eton 'Sunday Q's took us at large through the Old Testament', and then proceeds to enumerate all the massacres, plagues and other 'goings-on of this fierce tribal God whom we were expected to equate with a God of Love'. I myself can remember the controversies that raged over the 'imprecatory psalms', when Christian people objected to singing: 'O, daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery; yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones.'
I understand that lately the Anglican psalter has been made more selective, but in my young days to object to the public singing of any psalm or verse of a psalm was to raise doubts as to one's orthodoxy. Of any mystical interpretation we had no inkling, and I have heard sneers at what was imagined to be the 'Roman' way in such matters. But it is remarkable how different those psalms appear when their violence is translated into terms of the Spirit and the light of the New Covenant shines through the war-clouds of Jahveh.
In the Catholic Church I learned to know the Bible as a Voice rather than as a book. A book must be read more or less as it is written, whether it be in the 'portions' of my Scripture Union or in my father's gallant attempt as a boy to read the whole Bible aloud without a single stumble or mistake, anything of this nature sending him back for a fresh start (the fact that he reached the middle of Leviticus says much for his perseverance). But a voice, the voice of a living body, can change its mood or its emphasis, can repeat its words or transpose them, can interpret its own utterances, can chime with other voices. This is the Voice I now hear uttering its wisdom from day to day, the prophets answering the apostles in the Proper of the Mass, deep calling to deep in a dialectic of spirituality, for which the Canon provides the final synthesis. The singers are there too—David restored to innocence by his Son, Solomon wearing the diadem with which his mother crowned him in the day of the joy of his heart. The Old Testament has been baptized in the liturgy and 'the fierce tribal God' is finally equated with the God of Love.
When the last war began, uncertain of what degrees of isolation lay ahead of me, I provided myself lavishly with the works of two authors, Baron von Hügel and P. G. Wodehouse. Apart from the fact that in their different ways they give me almost equal pleasure, I chose them as representative of two trends in reading, both of which I must follow if I am to be happy among my books. I must have knowledge and I must have entertainment and I do not want the two to be combined. As a child I hated such books as Fairy Know-a-Bit which were supposed to sweeten the bitter pill of knowledge for the young, but—as I have already told—would pore contentedly over the unflavoured paragraphs of Dr. Smith's Smaller Classical Mythology. On the other hand, I could not do without Lottie's Visit to Grandmamma or Froggy's Little Brother. Fiction was as necessary as fact.
These two tastes have accompanied me all though life. Sometimes one has been in the ascendant, sometimes the other, but I do not think that either has ever been entirely missing. There are human beings who have no small talk and others who have nothing else. I do not know which is the greater bore. By the same token I am exasperated by those who never read novels, especially when a superior attitude is adopted in consequence, but often feel at a loss with those who never read anything else. And by anything else I do not mean journalistic cook-ups, ghosted autobiographies, or 'popular' science, but good solid works on science, history, philosophy, theology, psychology and so on.
There is not much fear of my ever taking myself too seriously as a reader or thinker—average middle-brow in both is the highest praise I would give—but if my brow is not high, neither is it narrow, and if I have not read deeply I have read widely; so I may hope to escape Robert Graves' judgment—'To know only one thing well is to have a barbaric mind.'
The two authors with whom I chose to start the war are neither of them strictly representative. In fact they might both be called extremists in their different lines. But they gave me that which in those strained and troubled times I wanted most—religion and laughter. I could not have faced the future without both of these.
After all that I have said about being easily daunted by a difficult style it may seem strange that I should find such constant, unfailing pleasure as well as enlightenment in von Hügel's work, where thought and language are sometimes equally obscure. But so it is and I have read and re-read practically all he has written, finding strangely enough a stimulation in that very style—such as comes from a swim in waters that are not only deep but tingling cold. Moreover, once one has mastered it with the help of some slight knowledge of German methods of construction, the language is seen so closely to fit the thought that every word, or even the position of every word, has a significance. Frequently there are paragraphs that have to be read twice and there are also moments of exasperation—as when in The Mystical Element in Religion an austerely beautiful human story is so clumsily mishandled that it almost disappears under a metaphysical superstructure.
But if von Hügel's manner is occasionally frustrating, the matter of his work is that of which as I grow older grows my need. I can remember my husband and myself as young people on holiday in Jersey attending the French Catholic Church for the reason that there was always a sermon about—God. It is a curious fact that at home in the Church of England we hardly ever heard a sermon on this subject. Neat little discourses on points of doctrine, moral principles, or even topics of the day were what we had to listen to. But in the Catholic Church as we partially knew it then, the preacher talked only of God. And God is the subject, or rather the summit, of all von Hügel's work. The Mystical Element, Eternal Life, the Essays and Addresses, the Letters even, all move towards that height, which he might have scaled still further had he lived to complete his supreme work, The Reality of God. Philosophies, moralities, sanctities are by the way; there is always that peak ahead, rising above the clouds of 'the half-world of creatures'.
'Pray notice first,' he writes to Maude Petre, 'that when we say we believe in the Creation, especially when we profess belief in each single soul's free will, we profess the mysterious belief that God has somehow alienated a certain amount of His own power and given it a relative independence of its own; that He has, as it were, set up (relative but still real) obstacles, limits, friction as it were against Himself. And thus we may well wonder at this mysteriously thin barrier between our poor finite relativity and the engulfing infinite Absolute, a barrier which is absolutely necessary for us, for though God was and could ever be without us, God is no more God for us, if we cease to be relatively distinct from Him. Let a drop be put in the ocean, and for the drop there is no more either ocean or drop.... And note further that this poor little shelter of reeds, with the Absolute ever burning down upon it; this poor little paper boat, on the sea of the Infinite—God took pity upon them, quite apart from sin and the Fall—God wanted to give their relative independence a quite absolute worth, He took as it were sides with His own handiwork against Himself and gave us the rampart of His tender strong humanity against the crushing opposition of the pure time-and-space-less Eternal and Absolute of Himself.'
Von Hügel is one of the few writers whose letters can be compared with their finest work. Unlike Jane Austen whose letters have been a shock to those of her admirers who did not expect to find her in some ways so like Lydia Bennet (or indeed the letters of most authors who, weary of writing, merely scribble to a friend), he put the best of himself into an envelope. His letters to Maude Petre are especially illuminating, so full of pain and tenderness, yet showing the essential strength of his character in contrast with the obstinacy of hers. His letters to Father Tyrrell, too, are valuable in the light they shed on those dated controversies which first united and then divided them—Tyrrell to go out to Loisy in the wilderness, von Hügel to remain in the fold at the cost not of intellect but of pride.
His Letters to a Niece are a minor classic and show the breadth as well as the depth of his mind. In acting as spiritual director to this young woman he strives above all to enlarge the base on which her religious life is to be built. We may smile at a knowledge of ancient Greek coins being considered a necessary foundation for the spiritual life, but his indignation against 'the poor thin thing' to which a narrow outlook has reduced religion, and his belief that a woman's religion particularly suffers this contraction—these explain the zeal with which he ransacks paganism on her behalf before introducing her specifically to Christianity. With him Robert Graves' sentence, 'To know only one thing well is to have a barbaric mind' applies with special force when the one thing is religion.
I have sometimes regretted that I did not take the chance my friendship with Evelyn Underhill could have given me to meet her own great friend, 'the Baron' as she always called him. But I did not become really familiar with his work until after he was dead. Before then, though I often heard about him from her, the attraction was not strong and I doubt if meeting him would have increased it. He was a great man in every sense—of few contemporaries have I heard the word 'great' used so often—but greatness does not always appear at a first meeting. I might have seen only an old man with an ear-trumpet, with whom I should have found it difficult to converse. It is better that I should not have known him until his deafness had been put aside with his mortality and I could meet only his great mind and heart. Few men have greatness in both as he had; so often intellect seems to wither affection, so often it seems clouded by it. But with him the mind enlightens the heart which warms and comforts it. He is always 'creaturely'—a word he loved—great but creaturely. I write of him as if he were still living and so indeed he is.
'The half-world of creatures' is not von Hügel's phrase. It comes from E. I. Watkin's A Philosophy of Form. I have already quoted from this author, whom I read with appetite. He is more metaphysical than von Hügel, more poetical, more mystical, more of a theologian. The Baron on seeing himself described somewhere as a Catholic apologist said he felt like a dog who has won a prize at a cat show, but Mr. Watkin is openly a Catholic philosopher, though I should say more of a Platonist than such usually are. He is less concerned than von Hügel with the post-Descartes philosophies, but he makes a case against Logical Positivism, which in the Baron's lifetime has not begun its full assault on metaphysics. Also, if more theological he is less ecclesiastical and controversial in his interests, and he has read widely in the present as well as in the past.
Another writer for whose new books I look out eagerly is Père Louis Bouyer, for French has come with me into religious philosophy and the Bibliothèque Rose fulfils itself in Les Éditions du Cerf. Père Bouyer is less of a philosopher than either von Hügel or Mr. Watkin, but he is, as might be expected, more of a theologian and also very much more of a liturgist. The first book of his that I read, Le Mystère Pascal, is in fact a liturgical meditation on the Easter rite. Its successor, Le Sens de la Vie Monastique, is something different. Of the second part I am not qualified to write, for it concerns the special demands of the religious life, but the first part with its speculations on 'eschatological humanism' I found as exciting as any novel. I use the comparison advisedly, for I had already met the same speculations, disguised as fiction, in Mr. C. S. Lewis's two 'Space' romances—Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. He no doubt as well as Père Bouyer has read the neo-Platonist Greek fathers. He cannot have read Père Bouyer's book, for it had not yet appeared, and though I think it more than probable that Père Bouyer has read C. S. Lewis (for his references suggest that he has read everything that has been written in French or in English) he obviously takes his ideas from the fountain head and not from the cup that has been filled at the same source.
I confess having read only religious philosophy. Philosophy without religion would be, for me, without interest, because without meaning. The same, of course, applies to history, but in the process of education one has become so used to the idea of history without a meaning that one can still read it that way. It is not in my case, like philosophy, an interest acquired late in life, but one with which I have grown up, so I can still read history as I read it as a girl with little thought beyond its passing significance. Lately Professor Toynbee has linked up history once more with religion, but the adverse criticism of his Study of History did not come entirely from unbelievers. For ever since the Renaissance history—religious in its origins and essence—has belonged to the 'half-world of creatures'.
That this could ever be the whole world is one of the many dreams of Newton's Sleep. Separate that half-world completely from its spiritual complement and it ceases even to exist. If this could be done entirely—which, thank God, it cannot while man remains a living soul—all meaning would depart from it, leaving only the empty, broken shell. There is a passage in Charles Williams' Descent into Hell which describes how a meeting of savants and scientists to which the historian, Lawrence Wentworth, has long been looking forward becomes through his spiritual suicide a mere mess of meaningless shapes and sounds. 'There were faces, which ceased to be faces, and became blobs of whitish red and yellow, working and twisting in a horrible way yet did not surprise him. They moved and leaned and bowed; and between them were other things that were motionless now but might at any moment begin to crawl . . . there entered into him a small, steady, meaningless flow of sound, which stung and tormented him with the same lost knowledge of meaning. . . . The shapes turned themselves into alternate panels of black and white. He had forgotten the name of them, but somewhere at some time he had thought he knew similar forms and they had names. These had no names, and whether they were or were not anything, and whether that anything was desirable or hateful he did not know.'
In other words he is sitting at dinner, surrounded by his illustrious friends in their white shirt fronts and 'tails', listening to their learned conversation. But 'the magical mirrors of Gomorrah had been broken and the city itself had been blasted, and he was out beyond it in the blankness of a living oblivion'.
I believe it is true that man began his long assault on knowledge with the stars. Lifting up his eyes from the world around him, the world of his daily struggle with life, he searched the heavens for their lights and laws. The cave drawings of prehistoric man are no proof to the contrary, for these almost certainly belong to rite rather than investigation. Their marvellous accuracy comes no more from a deliberate study of nature than their beauty comes from a deliberate study of art. They are supreme examples of the 'analeptic method . . . the intuitive discovery by poetic thinking of truths which can afterwards be prosaically supported by reason.'
No doubt it was poetic thinking that first reached the stars, but in course of time astronomy had passed from myth to science. The Chinese, Hindus, Egyptians, Chaldeans, Greeks and Arabs looked up into their clear skies, and with no instrument other than their eyes not only named the stars but plotted their courses. Each civilization as it rose stamped the heavens with new signs, but was apparently quite content to know little or nothing of the earth which it dominated. Centuries later, when the Copernican system was universally accepted and the telescope was drawing from outer space the galaxies that we know today, men still believed that India could be reached via a mysterious 'North-West Passage' and that the human body was governed by 'humours'. As for plants and animals these seem to have been more accurately observed in the Auricignan caves, but Copernicus turned the heavens inside out a hundred years before Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood and nearly another hundred before Linnaeus made a science of natural history. And still, though Pope's line had long been hackneyed, man himself, in his essence and personality, was not yet universally regarded as the proper study of mankind. The surgeons could by now dissect him, and the philosophers were always making new nets for him to slip through, but only the 'analeptic method' of poets and novelists seemed to touch the mystery of his being until late in the nineteenth century the new science of psychology prosaically supported the intuitive discoveries of the poetic approach.
There is an almost exact repetition in my own life of this descent from the skies. When I was a very little girl, no more than a child, I was almost painfully interested in astronomy. I say 'painfully' because my unfortunate parents had to take me not once but twice to a lecture on popular astronomy given in the Hastings Pier Pavilion by Sir Robert Ball. I enjoyed it so much the first time that I insisted on hearing it all over again. The second time there was an additional attraction in the form of what must have been one of the very first movies, lasting about ten minutes. But this did not thrill me nearly so much as the lantern slides that accompanied the lecture—the orbits of the planets, the mountains of the moon, and always at the end the brightly coloured text: 'The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handywork.'
This early interest in astronomy evaporated very soon, and I cannot say that since then I have read much of what used to be my favourite subject. I have not even read the popular elucidations of Eddington and Jeans. My interests like those of humanity in general came down to earth. But it was not till I was near middle age that I occupied myself—apart from 'poetic thinking'—with the proper study of mankind. Then, like so many others, I began to read Freud.
Psychology as we know it now did not come before the general public until the First World War. By then the doctrines of Freud and Jung and the technique of psycho-analysis had spread from the clinics to the coteries and 'free association' became a sort of literary parlour game. Freud attracted more attention than Jung, as he was supposed to attribute all human reactions to the unfulfilled needs of sex, and sinister stories were told of the remedies advised by practitioners of his method. No doubt a certain amount of harm was done both to his reputation and to the more gullible members of the community by unqualified 'psycho-analysts' who had swallowed but not digested him, and a quite terrible lot of nonsense was talked on all sides. But it is notable that at a recent congress of psychologists in Vatican City, Freud was very much in the ascendant over Jung, who had always been supposed to enjoy the favour of religious circles because of his emphasis on religion as a human need and the general build-up of his system of archetypes, which lends itself to religious interpretation.
Advised by Evelyn Underhill, who greatly disliked Freud as she understood him, I read a certain amount of MacDougal and William Brown; but one had not the sensation with them as one has with Freud—and also, indeed, with Jung—of adventuring on a totally new path towards discoveries that have never been made before. I gather from what I have read (and I have no other source of knowledge) that Freud's methods, if rightly interpreted, are of more use than those of other psychologists to the psychiatrist, as long as they are kept firmly apart from their originator's epilogue, that Weltanschauung which has done so much to discredit him in fields which are not, properly speaking, his own.
It is one of the curiosities of human nature, this tendency to a Weltanschauung. So many scientists who were safe enough on their own empirical ground have courted disaster by rash adventures into metaphysics. It seems almost inevitable that any new idea or discovery will be used sooner or later as a key to the riddle of the universe. In the case of Freud it is not so much a key as a club—a club to beat the idea of God into the Oedipus complex. Indeed the violence of his assault has led to the comment that where God is concerned Freud himself is in need of analysis. But Freud is not the only one to spoil good practice with bad theory. J. B. Rhine adds a final chapter to his Reach of Mind in which he shows what amounts to a world redeemed by Extra-Sensory Perception; while the late J. Dunne failed to realize that his Experiment with Time did not necessarily involve The New Immortality. Until a short while ago I thought that Jung had escaped the snare and would remain a determined empiricist throughout other people's speculations on his psychology. But in his recently published Answer to Job he seems to have attempted the analysis of Jahveh and in the course of it to have become most unprofessionally angry with his patient.
The night I finished reading Freud's Interpretation of Dreams I dreamed the perfect text-book Freudian dream. I cannot now, perhaps fortunately, remember the details, but they fitted his theories exactly. The same thing happened when I first read Jung—a text-book dream, containing in this case some additional material I did not meet till later. The neatest fit of all was the dream I had after reading Dunne—drawing for exactly one-half on the past, for the other on the future. In none of these dreams was there any extraneous matter. They were the carefully written exercises of my sleeping mind for which it deserved full marks.
Long before I read Dunne I was accustomed to the idea of pre-vision in dreams, for my mother dreamed ahead of some important events in her life—to the exasperation of my father who believed such a thing to be impossible. Like many good and devout men of that period he kept his religion in a separate compartment from his other beliefs. Faithfully accepting all the miracles in the Bible, he utterly refused to believe in any anywhere else, and Bradlaugh could not have been more of a sceptic than he on such matters as ghosts, telepathy, pre-vision or even—until medically certified—hypnotism. He must have found my mother's dreams distinctly trying, though he never would acknowledge their fulfilment. Needless to say I did not tell him mine.
These did not start till I was grown up and with one or two exceptions were much more trivial than my mother's. On only one occasion has a dream clearly foretold anything of real importance to me. For the most part my dreams have born the same relation to the future as to the past—that is they have complicated and smudged the small skeleton of fact with extraneous symbols. Nevertheless it was my dreams that aroused my interest in Extra-Sensory Perception, that set me to read Dunne and Rhine and Soal and Saltmarsh and others who have occupied themselves with prediction, whether spontaneous or controlled.
From prediction I passed on to other departments of what is loosely called 'psychical research', my reading, I hope, becoming more scientific as I drew further and further away from Borley Rectory. Psychical research has been bedevilled by spiritualism, by the desire not only to investigate phenomena but by such investigation to prove an already accepted belief. It can of course be said that Myers set the pattern with his Human Personality and its Survival after Bodily Death, but the fact that the second half of the title is seldom used in modern references is not entirely due to its cumbrousness.
Myers is now considered old-fashioned, but he was a pioneer in those regions which the psycho-analysts have mapped out more impressively. Comparing him to Freud and Jung is like comparing an explorer to a cartographer, and the fact that the regions he explored are, in spite of all the maps, still largely unknown is owing to the reluctance of those best fitted to study them to awake from Newton's Sleep. It seems more than possible—it seems probable—that if the mystery of man were fully known it would involve as big a change in scientific thinking as did the astronomy of Copernicus.
The late G. N. M. Tyrrell, in the course of his Myers Memorial Lecture  states that: 'All the facts we have brought to light clash violently with a widely accepted view about the nature of things. You cannot take facts like telepathy and precognition and simply tack them on to this accepted outlook. . . . In general, the entire outlook necessitated by the findings of psychical research breaks up the naive realism in which the human mind is steeped and shows it to be largely illusory.'
 Delivered in 1942 and published in book form by Duckworth in 1943 as Apparitions.
This is turning the world inside out with a vengeance; but here the world is not the macrocosm of Ptolemy's heavens but the microcosm of man's personality. We know from the histories of Kepler and Galileo that Copernicus's discoveries had to wait more than a hundred years before they were universally accepted by orthodox science (the fact that the scientists were also theologians is irrelevant, since in those days few besides the clergy had any learning), and it seems likely that history will be repeated—if there is time. Tyrrell laments that 'the idea that, through the study of human personality, our whole conception of the nature of things may undergo a radical change is as far as ever from making its appearance in the philosophic and scientific worlds'; and though Rhine has tried hard to make telepathy and clairvoyance respectable by introducing scientific methods of research, the result has been little more than to sow uneasiness in the minds of some of his fellow researchers. 'The quantitative methods of research,' writes Tyrrell, 'on which we are now concentrating, although useful and perhaps indispensable for the solution of certain problems, are in many ways unsuitable for psychical research . . . [which] is in a very different position from physics and is a very different type of inquiry. It is unexplored, virgin territory in a sense in which the physical sciences are not. We are eminently pioneers. These people want to build a railway, whereas our first duty is to make a rough map of the terrain. We have, I feel sure, to begin by forming new ideas about it. These ideas will be quantitative and very new, and probably very upsetting to common sense and logic. 
 Apparitions. Revised edition, 1953. Pp. 162, 163.
My personal belief is that psychical research has been foxed not only by spiritualism but by the tacit relegation in some quarters of everything outside the field of the physical sciences to 'the supernatural'. I feel sure that telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis and so on belong equally with biology, physics and psychology to the natural order. I do not believe that psychical research will ever by itself 'prove' the immortality of the soul, but I believe that its discoveries may in time shed an entirely new light on human personality and 'the nature of things'. The Book of Genesis gives the picture of man renouncing the Tree of Life for the Tree of Knowledge. Is it perhaps a fact that the mystery of life might already have been solved if we had not spent so much human study and effort on the physical sciences—if I dare say so, barking up the wrong tree? It would be a sad irony if our long struggle for knowledge of the physical world around us should end in our blowing that world to smithereens before we have found out what it really is or who we really are.
All this and Ouspensky too has provided my mind with as it were its protein diet for the last fifteen years. But it also needs its carbohydrates and these I take in the form of fiction. I did not start the war alone with a philosopher in whose company I could face its fears and anxieties but with a jester in whose company I could forget them.
P. G. Wodehouse is of course the supreme refuge of the escapist, for he opens the frontier of another world. Other novelists invite us into worlds which are reflections of the world we know and resound with its echoes; they create characters and situations but not worlds. P. G. Wodehouse creates worlds—worlds in any number: the world of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, the world of Blandings Castle (sometimes under another name but smelling just as sweet), the world of American theatre-business, the worlds of the Mulliners, the Goofs and the Young Men in Spats. This rare power to create worlds is also, I venture to believe, part of the fascination of I. Compton-Burnett.
At first sight these two novelists are not remarkably like each other, but I could argue that they have more in common than their respective admirers would allow. It is true that she draws in straight lines, whereas he is all curves, that her characters are blueprints of humanity while his are caricatures, that she is a wit where he is a humorist. But they both provide an escape from life as we know it today, and they are both inimitable—though here again there is a difference, for no one has ever attempted to imitate Miss Compton-Burnett, whereas Wodehouse has had many imitators, for whose achievements the only word is Dire.
But what links them most closely together in my mind is their style—not that in this they have many points of resemblance, but I am sure that in the case of both it is manner and not matter that forms their main attraction. We do not read Miss Compton-Burnett for her story or her characters but for the dry, crackling dialogue that sets them before us. Nor do we read P. G. Wodehouse for his ingenious plots or farcical situations. We read him for that command of language which caused a no lesser judge than Hilaire Belloc to describe him as 'the best writer of English now alive'.
It is true that this verdict caused a certain amount of surprise in America where Mr. Belloc pronounced it, but he was perfectly well able to explain and defend it. In his introduction to The Week-End Wodehouse he writes: 'His object is comedy in the most modern sense of that word: that is, his object is to present the laughable, and he does this with such mastery and skill that he nearly always approaches, and often reaches, perfection.' He illustrates this statement with an analysis of Wodehouse's construction and style, particularly with his use of parallelism. 'Now in parallelism Mr. Wodehouse is again supreme. There is no one like him in this department. One may say of him as he might say of his own Jeeves, "There is none like you, none"'—and certainly Lord Chesterfield's august pronouncement that 'there is nothing so vulgar or illiberal as audible laughter' comes to startling life in Wodehouse's comparison of a certain lady's laugh to 'cavalry clattering over a tin bridge'. Belloc continues: 'Mr. Wodehouse has done the trick. In every case the parallelism has enhanced to the utmost the value of the thing described. It appears not only in phrases, but in the use of one single metaphorical word, and especially in the use of passing vernacular slang.' He ends with some strikingly uninhibited praise of Jeeves as a literary creation—'In his creation of Jeeves he has done something which may respectfully be compared to the work of the Almighty in Michael Angelo's painting. He has formed a man filled with the breath of life.' But here I venture to disagree; for though I could not bear to lose a word that Jeeves has uttered or has had uttered about him, he does not really belong to human nature. And why should he? He is a citizen of Mr. Wodehouse's world, not ours, and as such belongs properly to Space Fiction.
In a review of Mr. Wodehouse's latest novel there was a sneer at 'septuagenarian humour'. Being nearly seventy myself my opinion may be biased, so I will say no more than that I found him equally amusing when I was thirty. It was during middle age that I began to feel superior and to neglect his work, with the undeserved reward that in my later years I have had very much more of it to read and enjoy than I should have otherwise. There is also this to be said for septuagenarian humour—that as more and more people live to be over seventy it is likely to become more and more in demand and would be better supplied by a contemporary than by a superior young person who considers we ought to be thinking of our graves, or better still, be in them. May Mr. Wodehouse live to entertain the octogenarians and the nonogenarians and even the centenarians. His humour knows no uncleanness and no unkindness. It is true that he has a deep-set dislike of aunts and lady novelists, both of which I am, but I hope that will only increase the value of this tribute.
P. G. Wodehouse provides the richly sherried trifle that ends the meal that started with I. Compton-Burnett's caviare. In between are more sustaining courses and some of these also are fiction. If I read more philosophy and psychology than I did in the past I also read more novels. For the novel interests me rather more now than when I first began to write. Some writers have told me that novels no longer appeal to them as they grow older, that 'love' as one of the mainsprings of human behaviour has become a bore and they would rather have their ideas served plain. But personally I find that ideas presented through the medium of a good novel have the vitality and stimulation of ideas presented by life itself. Of all the various definitions of the novel I would choose that which calls it 'a criticism of life'.
I would not like to be misunderstood when I talk of 'ideas' in fiction. I am not particularly partial to novels written expressly to illustrate their author's views on time or eternity, but a novel which has no critical approach to life, which is only a story, I find as unentertaining as the better-class women's magazines (the other class has for me the same fascination that I imagine Horror Comics have for those whose morbid tastes take a different line). There has lately been some discussion of the novel's right to be entertaining, and certain novelists have been commended for being above this weakness, whereas others have succumbed to it. I note, however, that I have personally received more entertainment from the first class than from the second. I find D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster more entertaining than Arnold Bennett or Hugh Walpole. But perhaps I am misusing the work. I should have said that I find more pleasure in their work. Yet surely to settle down for any hour's pleasure is to be entertained, no matter how much the entertainers would (or possibly would not) scorn the idea. I am long past the age for reading, as I used, for fashion's or for conscience' sake, and if I am not to be entertained I will not read at all. Any well-written novel that presents life, any sort of life, and ideas, any sort of ideas, inevitably entertains me, and if by this I am insulting the author I can only apologize.
There is, however, one class of novel in which entertainment is always considered respectable, and that is the mystery, 'tec, thriller, blood, whodunnit class. At one time this kind of fiction was considered beneath contempt, the province of office boys and inferior housemaids, but lately it has become a recreation for intellectuals. Actually it was a nun who first pointed out to me its value as a hypnotic, but I had already discovered most of its other uses, and was a confirmed addict of the late Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke.
I met him and Sherlock Holmes together during the First World War, when I was staying unhappily at a cheap and battered club in Maida Vale, trying to warm my heart at the ashes of an extinguished love affair. I used to read both Austin Freeman and Conan Doyle as I sat alone at tea, and was surprised to find how interesting and how comforting they were. In the end I came to prefer Freeman, and I believe I must have read everything he wrote. His extraordinary lucidity and directness, and the width of his interests, among which however medicine predominated, made up for Doyle's superiority in presenting life and character. Even his occasional introduction of a love affair—which I can seldom forgive in this type of fiction—was atoned for by the quaintness of its setting in hansom cabs and in the 'milk shops' where the lovers met for tea. Freeman was already an old man and had been writing for some time, so I had a lot of leeway to make up. There is no one writing quite in his style at the present day.
The scope of my reading was greatly enlarged by the discovery of the thriller's narcotic properties, which made it necessary to have one always available. It may seem strange that murder and its detection should induce sleep, but it supports my idea that this kind of novel is really a grown-up fairy-tale. It does not and should not bear any close resemblance to life, and the attempts of various authors to make it do so lead only to sleeping-pills. Murder is not of itself in the least entertaining, but sordid and horrible, and its detection is seldom a mystery but a wrestle with legal obstructions. Therefore if we are not to be first horrified and then bored, the world in which it takes place should not be too much like our own. But when I am invited to combine detection with a psychological or sociological study I find myself in the same mental state as when confronted with an ape, a parrot or an earwig—all creatures who suggest a class of life above them without actually belonging to it. I find it painful to look at an ape because I do not see it as the animal it is but as the human being that it grotesquely is not; nor is a parrot with its preferences and jealousies quite a bird but the ape of a dog or a cat; while and earwig, with the horrid appearance of intelligence with which it evades destruction, will not allow me to see it only as an insect. By the same token the novels of Miss Dorothy Sayers, Miss Margery Allingham and Miss Ngaio Marsh suggest a serious criticism of life to which their murders and their detectives do not belong.
I use the word 'detective' rather than 'detection' because all these three novelists have added to my difficulties as a reader by entrusting their detection to a glamour boy. Reared as it were on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Thorndyke, I cannot stomach Mr. Campion and 'Handsome Alleyn', while as for Lord Peter Wimsey . . . I can only say I was one of the few who rejoiced when Miss Sayers turned from crime to theology. Apart from personal dislikes I consider that a detective story should have no concern with a detective's love life. Dr. Thorndyke might beam on the lovers sitting at tea in the milk shop but he himself was totally immune from such concessions to human nature; and as for indulging in a honeymoon. . . . Agatha Christie does not present the same difficulties, for neither of her detectives, male or female, shows any signs of becoming glamorous, and the settings of her mysteries, though life-like, are never so close as to make the mysteries themselves seem incredible. There is nothing so good as a vintage Christie—I say vintage, because she runs another cellar pour le soif which depends too much on mere technical ability and where murder and murderer do not always match. But The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express and Crooked House, to name only three out of many, are superb examples of what the whodunnit can be when uncontaminated by masculine glamour or feminine intellect.
Another writer who keeps my rules, and I do not think they are only mine, is Mr. John Rhode. Here we have detection without a detective, glamorous or otherwise, for Jimmy Waghorn is only a pleasant, rather short-sighted police superintendent, who though in one of the earlier novels he married somebody, has steadfastly ignored her ever since. The story is entirely devoted to crime, and it is not only its detection that arouses respect. Mr. Rhode has devised more brilliant and unusual ways of getting rid of unwanted members of the human race than any other writer I know.
But the novel has had more serious charges brought against it than that of being entertaining. It has been stated to be dead; or if not dead, then dying—'a vanishing art-form'. This diagnosis is not new. I made it myself as long ago as 1911, when at a loss for something to say at the end of a lecture, and many others have made it both before and since. But recently it has been more formidably revived by Sir Harold Nicolson on the score that the novel is the youngest of the literary arts and therefore likely to be short-lived. It would indeed be The Story of a Short Life were it to vanish now, for the novel as we know it has been in existence for less than three hundred years. But why should we be so Victorian as to expect the young to die early? After all, prose is a more recent literary form than poetry but at the moment shows every sign of outliving it.
If the novel died it must be either from external assault or internal decay. The assault no doubt is expected from television. Televiewers will not read. The same, however, was said of the radio, which in so far as it has affected the sales of novels has only increased them. A vast popular network has brought books and authors before a public which might otherwise never have heard of them, and as far as I can see it will be the same with television. I forecast that the effect on the novel of television will be similar to the effect of the cinema on the stage—not a kill, but a purge. No doubt it may be the death of the fiction magazines and of those curious literary offerings that appeared on the bookstalls when the newspapers did not; but I do not believe that the serious novelist has anything to fear. Those who read novels either for edification or for entertainment will continue to do so, and many who did not may begin on the strength of some recommendation or reproduction on the screen. If the novel dies, it will not be the work of an outside enemy.
But perhaps the novel is its own enemy, and there are inevitably moments when one fears the public may become bored by the sheer ugliness of many novels that are published today. I see, however, no general signs of failing circulation and though the output of novels was slightly less last year than it was the year before, it was substantially greater than even a few years ago. As for standards, I cannot see that those have in any way declined. We may perhaps have fewer giants than we had in the past but the average is very much higher than in the days of the great men.
We think so often and so much of the leaders that we forget how poor the average used to be. After Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne and Smollett came the circulating libraries with a sea of rubbish out of which Jane Austen rose like Venus from the waves. How many of those strong souls who can still read Scott could read his immediate predecessors in the Gothic Revival? It is the same with the Victorian novel. Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, the Brontës were the flagships of a three-decker navy which if any of it still survives—and possibly in some old-fashioned rectory or manor house copies may still be found of Beulah, Ben Hur or The Bachelor of the Albany—it can attract readers only as a curiosity or a joke.
Even the great names will not always bear too close an examination. Any novelist in the second or third rank today could make rings round Maria Edgeworth; and compare Bulwer Lytton's method of writing history with that of Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott—it is not only changing fashion that has blurred the colours of the earlier writers. They were always dingy and no closer to what they represented than a Victorian stained-glass window. As for life and character, there is more of it in one chapter of Monica Dickens than in the whole of Kingsley and Disraeli, and if it were published today would anyone made the fuss that was made over John Halifax, Gentleman? We have too many just as good.
But it is not only the high standard of the average that makes me think the novel very much alive. Another sign of life is its adaptability. Changing fashions in reading are continuously met by changing fashions in writing and new experiment is constantly enriching the traditional main body of English fiction. The experimental novel is not an attempt to keep a dying craft alive but a sign of its vitality, and though some experiments may fail and deserve to fail they nearly all in some way enter the classic stream and thus prevent its stagnation. Henry James, Dorothy Richardson, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, and many others have put life and adventure into the traditional English novel at times when, no doubt, it was like other established forms, showing signs of decline. The novel can and will survive as long as it remains a valid interpretation of life and human nature. There are other forms of entertainment, there are other means of communicating ideas, but as a criticism of life—of society and humanity—there is nothing that can quite take its place.
As I write in my oast-house study I seem very far from my nursery bookcase. Yet the shelves which a local craftsman has so skilfully moulded to the circular walls are prismatic with the spines of books which derive in true succession from those I read all those years ago. Of actual survivors hardly any remain—only a few volumes of the Bibiothèque Rose are there to face Les Éditions du Cerf across the room. But the others live on in their descendants.
These take a fairly direct line. Any book I pick up now can take me back without genealogical complications to a nursery ancestor. On the same shelf as Les Éditions du Cerf stand Père Bouyer's two great works, two Romano Guardinis and half a dozen von Hügels—a long way, it might seem, from Line Upon Line but most surely the ripening of those interests which started there. The shelf of the psychologists and anthropologists bears the same relation to Dr. Smith's Mythology, and the novels no doubt derive from Lottie's Visit to Grandmamma. It might be more difficult to trace the descent of the poems of Blake, Crashaw, Treherne, T. S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell from Original Poems for Infant Minds. Indeed I cannot claim that my love of poetry was inspired by that depressing work. But poetry, the oldest literary form, is mysteriously the last to be loved for its own sake—take for example Lord Samuel's contempt of a lovely but obscure poem by Dylan Thomas—and it was not till I had been some years out of the nursery that I came in any degree to value any poetry apart from what that same patron of the arts would probably call its meaning.
My early reading was dictated by chance and the choice of others. I read what was there or what I was given, and the contents of my school library was no doubt as fortuitous as that of the nursery bookshelf. Then came an interval in which my choice was directed by what I thought I ought to read and later by what other people were reading. I have not until the last fifteen years been entirely independent in my reading of either conscience or fashion. Now I read for my own pleasure—what interests and what entertains me, what stimulates and what relaxes me. This may be why reading has come to mean so much more to me than it did, this and the subsidence of other activities, as the years close round me with their short list. Not long ago I heard a country neighbour tell her ninety-year-old mother: 'Every year's a year now', and though myself still far from such an impressive figure, I can truthfully say that 'Every book's a book.' For in spite of all the books I have read there are so many more that I want to read and there is so much more that I want to know.