J.I.M. Stewart

J.I.M. Stewart novelist and former reader in English Literature at Oxford, is the author of Eight Modern Writers and of books on Kipling, Conrad and Hardy.

Cheeky

J.I.M. Stewart, 23 October 1986

In the fourth act of Measure for Measure the Provost describes the prisoner Barnardine, whose head, when severed, it is proposed to pass off as Claudio’s, as ‘a man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep – careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come: insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal’. David Smith finds most of this description eminently applicable to H.G. Wells (whom he intensely admires) and he adopts its final two words as a subtitle for his biography. What sense Shakespeare attached to them is doubtful. Johnson suggests ‘likely to die in a desperate state’, but Professor Smith seems to view them as equivalent to ‘desperately unreconciled to dying and giving up’. And Wells did, it seems, when celebrating his 70th birthday, tell an audience that ‘he was not yet ready to go.’ ‘He clung to life,’ Professor Smith comments on this, ‘and to his mission to make us and our world better.’ Yet we learn that eight years later Wells appears to have been of another mind, recording of himself: ‘The present writer is in his 79th year; he has lived cheerfully and abundantly. Like Landor he has warmed both hands at the fire of life and now, as it sinks towards a restrictive invalidism, he is ready to depart … He awaits his end, watching mankind, still keen to find a helpful use for his accumulation of experience in this time of mental confusion, but without that headlong stress to come to conclusions with life, which is a necessary part of the make-up of any normal youngster, male or female.’ Wells, that is to say, still wants to sort us out, but is at the same time perfectly ready to call it a day. Just how he came to be ‘desperately mortal’ surely remains obscure. There is a point in The Island of Dr Moreau – unnoticed by Professor Smith – at which the narrator reveals his state of mind when hunted by the Beast People. He had been ‘too desperate to die’. Whether any light is to be extracted from this, I don’t know.’

Making them think

J.I.M. Stewart, 18 September 1986

In a Foreword to this very substantial book Michael Ffinch says that G.K. Chesterton ‘was above all things a great champion of Liberty’. He goes on: ‘This being so, it has often come as a surprise that in religion Chesterton should have moved away from the Liberal Unitarianism of his childhood towards Catholicism … Yet Chesterton knew that it was only by loving and serving God through his Church that perfect freedom may be found, so it was inevitable that in the cause of Liberty he also became a defender of the Faith … The understanding of this seeming paradox must be the chief concern of any biography of Chesterton, for the expounding of it was the chief concern of his life.’ On the following page Mr Ffinch tells of being admitted by Miss Dorothy Collins, Chesterton’s literary executor, to archival material so rich that he ‘remained happily stranded in the attic for twelve hours a day for several weeks’. ‘As each chest, trunk, suitcase or box revealed its treasures in the form of letters, articles, drawings and notebooks (in one box I found some thirty notebooks), I felt as if I had discovered Ben Gunn’s gold. In a suitcase there were many of the characters and scenery from Chesterton’s Toy Theatre … in another the early drafts of his great book, The Everlasting Man; while in a drawer I found more personal things: Chesterton’s passport, his pen, his spectacles, a Papal Medal, and his rosary.’ One may be edified, I suppose, by the Papal Medal and the rosary while at the same time feeling that early drafts of Chesterton’s most important work of Christian apologetics are likely to be of more substantial interest. Mr Ffinch, however, has nothing further to say about them, and what he seems chiefly to have carried off from amid Ben Gunn’s gold are numerous scraps of mediocre verse. And of just this, as it happens, some readers will recall quite enough in Maisie Ward’s earlier biography of Chesterton, published in 1944.’

Ballooning

J.I.M. Stewart, 5 June 1986

When in December 1926 the creator of Hercule Poirot disappeared the creator of Sherlock Holmes somehow possessed himself of one of her gloves, and at once took it to a Mr Horace Leaf with a result which he describes in a letter to the Morning Post, written on 16 December (ten days, that is, after Agatha Christie had vanished), and now reprinted in the present volume of selections from Conan Doyle’s letters to the press. Mr Leaf, this letter declares, is ‘an excellent psychometrist’ who ‘at once got the name of Agatha’ and then said: ‘There is trouble connected with this article. The person who owns it is half dazed and half purposeful. She is not dead as many think. She is alive. You will hear of her, I think, next Wednesday.’ Mrs Christie was found on the Tuesday night, but – sure enough – it was Wednesday when the news reached Doyle, who at once communicated so striking a psychic manifestation to Colonel Christie – from whose appalling behaviour as a husband it is now generally held that Mrs Christie (in whatever condition of mind) had taken flight.’

The chair she sat on

J.I.M. Stewart, 19 July 1984

This is the second and final volume of Hilary Spurling’s biography of I. Compton-Burnett, and it comes to us ten years after the first. During this interval has Mrs Spurling been attending to other things? So abundant, so heavily pendulous upon the bough, are the fruits of research now offered to us (so very thick, we may say, has grown the ivy elegantly disposed on the present dust-jacket as on the last) that nothing of the kind need be supposed. Mrs Spurling must surely have been at work from the dawn of life, determined to know as much as God himself about Ivy’s ancestors, parents, siblings, enemies, rivals, friends, acquaintances, servants, mentors and (above all) sources and channels of inspiration, and to hand us on everything we are prepared to take. I find myself prepared to take a great deal. Enthusiasm and pertinacity are by no means Mrs Spurling’s sole endowments. Endlessly curious as she ought to be, she brings sound judgment and taste to bear upon almost everything she finds, and her conclusions are embodied in an admirable expository prose. The two volumes together make a notable contribution to modern literary biography.

Browning Versions

J.I.M. Stewart, 5 July 1984

Oscar Browning – universally known as O.B., and in modern times only rivalled as Cambridge’s most celebrated don by his fellow Kingsman, J.M. Keynes – died in Rome in 1923 at the age of 86, having extracted from a nephew, Hugo Wortham, a promise to undertake his biography, and in return making Wortham his heir and literary executor. The biography, which appeared in 1927, earned a good deal of informed approbation. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, who as an undergraduate had been much influenced by O.B., admired it greatly. E.M. Forster, briefly O.B.’s pupil (or at least a reader of essays to him while he slumbered under an enormous red handkerchief), described it in 1934 as ‘one of the best biographies of the last few years – quite unsparing and completely sympathetic’.–

Other Selves

John Bayley, 29 October 1987

Invented stories contain a kernel of mystery because no one – probably not even the author – knows in what relation they stand to a possible fact. If Walter de la Mare had known a...

Read More

Spicy

Nicholas Spice, 15 March 1984

In English nurseries little boys are known to be made of frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. Little girls, as in my childhood I knew to my cost, are made of sugar and spice. And all...

Read More

Mythic Elements

Stephen Bann, 30 December 1982

In order to envisage the curious achievement of Emma Tennant’s Queen of Stones, you must first imagine that Virginia Woolf has rewritten Lord of the Flies. Interior monologues and painfully...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences