Stephen Wall

Stephen Wall is the editor, with Christopher Ricks, of Essays in Criticism.

A Little Local Irritation: Dickens

Stephen Wall, 16 April 1998

In October 1860 Dickens finally moved what remained of his family from Tavistock Square in Bloombury to Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He’d bought it four years earlier (for £1750), steadily improved it, and it remained his home until he died there in 1870. On high ground between Rochester and Gravesend, it was the very spot, as his letters insist, where Falstaff ran away. For Dickens, though, the house had a more personal association: he’d admired it as a small boy living nearby, and had been told by his father that if he worked really hard he might one day be able to live there. Recounting this story earlier in the year in a piece written for his weekly, All the Year Round, Dickens had wisely declined to congratulate himself on the realisation of his childish ambition. The household at Gad’s Hill hardly matched the domestic idylls with which his novels so often conclude.


Stephen Wall, 26 March 1992

Henry Green’s literary career began precociously and ended prematurely. According to his son Sebastian Yorke, the future novelist was already ‘writing hard’ at eleven or twelve, under a different pseudonym from the one he later adopted. At Eton he was a founder member of a Society of Arts, and his adolescent pose as an aesthete fostered some paragraphs which are subjected to a withering critique in his remarkable self-portrait Pack my bag, written in 1938-9 under the threat of war and now reissued. He began his first novel Blindness while still at school; it came out while he was at Oxford. His account of undergraduate life there in Pack my bag is a little rushed, but it wonderfully evokes the euphoria of licensed idleness in beautiful surroundings (he was at Magdalen) while remaining beady-eyed about its snobbery and self-absorption. He went down without a degree, failing to get on both with Anglo-Saxon and with his tutor C.S. Lewis, and understandably preferring to spend every afternoon at the cinema.


Stephen Wall, 12 March 1992

Graham Swift’s new novel, like its two predecessors, is about a man who wants to reconstruct the past. In Waterland (1983) this enterprise was conducted – plausibly enough if rather insistently – by a history teacher who saw in his imminent redundancy more than the demotion of his subject. Cutting back on history meant cutting off adults as well as children from the stories about the world that are among their deepest needs. History lies about us in our infancy, and in his case the Fenland child was the father of the pedagogic man. The hero of Out of this World (1988) was a famous photographer of wars and their aftermaths as well as the son of an armaments manufacturer, and neither by chance. As he says, ‘someone has to be a witness, someone has to see.’ Ever After, too, is driven forward by looking backward; maybe, its hero muses, it’s not posterity he’s looking for, but anteriority.’


Stephen Wall, 12 September 1991

There have always been novels with a highly developed sense of their own means of production. When, at the end of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen said she’d let other pens dwell on guilt and misery, she was being literal as well as figurative. A pen was what she wrote with. Dan Jacobson’s and Michael Frayn’s reliance on, respectively, a word processor and a tape recorder needn’t be put down to Post-Modern self-consciousness. Novels naturally like to keep up with the technology on which they rely, but an appeal – however disingenuous – to external machinery and allegedly objective documentation is thoroughly classical. In skilled hands, such honesty about the narrative’s status paradoxically enhances rather than undermines its authenticity, although we know, and it knows, that such candour is entirely specious.’


Stephen Wall, 27 June 1991

Craiglockhart Hydro – an Italianate pile near Edinburgh – opened in 1880, but it figures in literary history because it was taken over as a military hospital in 1916. Wilfred Owen was sent there, and so was Siegfried Sassoon. That their meeting, and the place itself, had a catalytic effect on Owen’s poetry has long been recognised. When, in her new novel, Pat Barker shows Sassoon and Owen discussing the diction and title of the latter’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, she is following manuscript evidence of Sassoon’s suggestions and Owen’s revisions. But although Sassoon plays a crucial role in Regeneration, he does so more as a refractory soldier and reluctant patient than as a writer; he is only one of a number of the shell-shocked who otherwise have no memorial. The real hero of the story and the main source of its considerable interest is the doctor who treated him.’

Rites of Passage

Anthony Quinn, 27 June 1991

Richard Rayner's new novel, his second, opens with a nervous exhibition of rhetorical trills and twitches, buttonholing the reader like a stand-up comic on his first night: ...

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Unhappy Childhoods

John Sutherland, 2 February 1989

Stephen Wall sees as crucial those passages in An Autobiography where Trollope rhapsodises on his equality with the personages of his fiction: ‘There is a gallery of them, and of all in...

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