Desmond MacCarthy: The Man and his Writings 
by David Cecil.
Constable, 313 pp., £9.95, May 1984, 9780094656109
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This is not, as the title might at first suggest, a critical biography, but a collection of miscellaneous essays by MacCarthy, all of which have been collected before, and a memoir by Lord David Cecil, of which a portion appeared as preface to an earlier selection.

Desmond MacCarthy was probably the best-known London literary journalist of his time, and it is clearly the view of publisher and editor that his influence can be extended into our own. He was at various times Literary Editor of the New Statesman, editor of Life and Letters, and chief reviewer for the Sunday Times. Among his protégés were Raymond Mortimer and Cyril Connolly. Altogether he did as much as anybody to establish or maintain the tone, the interests and the values of weekly literary journalism in the first half of this century. As to whether we ought to be grateful, opinion is divided between Lord David, who clearly thinks we ought, and the late Dr Leavis, who most emphatically thought otherwise.

Much depended, I think, on whether one knew MacCarthy personally. The period of his rise to power was one in which the literary world was a good deal less remote from those of politics and social influence than it is nowadays – the degree of overlap was clearly demonstrated in Ann Thwaite’s recent biography of Edmund Gosse. Of course this doesn’t mean that writers had political power, only that their status was somewhat higher, and they might hobnob with the great in salons and house parties, where, as Henry James sometimes suggests, they were cultivated for their celebrity or their charm rather than for their books – see, for example, ‘The Death of the Lion’.

Society was open to the talents, but to have the right background could only help, and MacCarthy’s was exemplary. He went to Eton (celebrated in an amusing piece in this collection) and Trinity, where he was an Apostle. He married the daughter of a Vice-Provost of Eton, a kinswoman by marriage of Virginia Woolf, and, on the evidence of A Nineteenth-Century Childhood, a more accomplished writer, at any rate of books, than her husband. He was an important but not a dedicated member of the Bloomsbury group, and shows up in memoir after memoir as a man of extraordinary charm, a great talker and a writer of boundless promise, the Henry James of the future. Virginia Woolf called him (in 1919, when he was 42) ‘the most gifted of us all’, but had to add the usual question: ‘why did he never do anything?’ MacCarthy lived another thirty-odd years without writing a book. The Woolfs once concealed a shorthand reporter behind a screen to record his inimitable talk, but found that, written down, it amounted to very little.

He was, then, for all his potential and all his charm, a literary journalist, thought to have settled for that lesser vocation as satisfying his conscience without requiring him to give up his pleasant dilatory ways and beguiling muddleheadedness. Gerald Brenan says justly enough that as a literary critic he was ‘sensible without being inspiring’. Of course he was also a dramatic critic and an essayist and an editor, so he cannot have been quite as idle as he appeared to some of his hard-working friends; and despite recurrent financial crises he was evidently able, by applying himself to this not richly paid job, to support a family in some style. He describes literary journalism as ‘an agreeable profession, provided you get enough work, or your circumstances do not require you to undertake more than you can do ... Moreover, to frequent newspaper offices, to live always close to the deafening cataract of books, is chilling to literary endeavour.’

Lord David Cecil, in his affectionate memoir, mentions that his father-in-law disliked the business of writing but thinks he was lucky in the end, since short pieces were in fact what suited his talent best; and he makes as large a claim for MacCarthy as anybody might want to sustain when he says that this collection is no heterogeneous assemblage of articles but a whole, informed by the author’s ‘profound, acute individual vision of human nature’. This does seem a bit strong, even though the essays in this book are selected from what were already selections, the chaff presumably winnowed long ago. In a way, one might have enjoyed reading a few more routine week-in-week-out pieces, written while the printer’s boy banged on the door, just to see how they stand up. In fact, most of the items here included have been polished, and some are much longer than Sunday book reviews.

There are, for example, some pretty elaborate accounts of famous contemporaries. MacCarthy seems to have been one of those fortunate people to whom great men always say something characteristic and memorable, as when Henry James, standing with his young friend in ‘an exceptionally gilt and splendid dining room’, remarks: ‘I can stand a great deal of gold.’ Meredith, who ‘talked with a kind of swagger’, said of Gladstone that he was ‘a man of marvellous aptitudes but no greatness of mind’; and of Swinburne that he was ‘a sea blown to a storm by a sigh’. When Dickens laughed, ‘the surprise of it was like the change in a whitebeam “when a gust of wind shivers it to silver”.’ Not bad for an old man in the course of two hours’ chat. Hardy (reported in what sounds like a broadcast – bibliographical data are skimpy) obligingly asked: ‘Do you think if I lived in London I would become clever, too?’

Among MacCarthy’s heroes is Goethe, admired for his combination of acute sensibility and detachment and because he was ‘transparently honest’. Herbert Spencer’s Autobiography is ‘transparently honest’ too, but also odd, innocent and ludicrous. Swinburne is praised for his command of the prose of ‘rapturous admiration’. ‘When he says things like, “History will forget the name of Bonaparte before humanity forgets the name of Rathbert” (perhaps I had better explain that this is a character in one of Victor Hugo’s minor works), it does not prevent me from appreciating his imaginative insight.’ The most considered tribute is to Asquith, whom he knew well and admired deeply, at least as deeply as he detested Lloyd George.

It may be that the expression of antipathy is a better test of style and temper than eulogy. MacCarthy has a piece on Disraeli that would surely have been impermissible in a dedicated Liberal of a later generation. He finds it absurd that anybody should place a wreath on Disraeli’s statue in Parliament Square with the inscription ‘to a great Englishman’. You might suppose that he responded thus because he did not think Disraeli great, but you would be wrong, as the attendant quotation from Carlyle will show: ‘How long will John Bull allow this Jew to dance on his belly?’ MacCarthy had a great respect for Carlyle. George Orwell remarked that English anti-semitism might be regarded as a fairly harmless upper-class habit until 1933, but not after that. The essay on Disraeli, it seems, was published in 1931.

MacCarthy also felt strongly about the avant-garde in the arts, and wrote some just things about the manner in which very poor works might make their way: shameless puffing by the promoters, spineless timidity on the part of people who felt they could not afford to be left behind. There is a lively piece on Gertrude Stein, with moments of parody: ‘She wrote a good many years ago, a good many, many, many, a good many a good many ago, she wrote a good many years ago, a little book called Tender Buttons’ is his version of the celebrated stutter. He could be amusing, as in a piece called ‘Literary Booms’, and when he got really interested – for instance, in Ibsen and Chekhov and Joyce’s Exiles – the serviceable prose acquires real vivacity.

Altogether, though, it now seems odd that he should have been so greatly admired. He prefers to deal in general judgments and only rarely writes in detail about a particular work; this habit may have carried over from his talk, and helps also to explain why some of the more interesting essays are not criticism at all, but such things as a carefully-wrought diptych on the first and last days of the 1914-18 war, and some extracts from a journal. At other times he seems insufficiently interested in his argument: in an essay on theatre he lays it down that ‘the stage is particularly fitted to exhibit action,’ and two pages later writes that ‘the stage is almost fitted to exhibit action,’ which displays either carelessness or indecision. He has, if one may so ‘place’ him, very little of the firmness or the freshness or the capacity to surprise one by new perceptions that characterise the work of V.S. Pritchett in the generation that came after his.

His success was due in part to his power to charm away the criticism even of a Virginia Woolf, but more positively because he was reassuringly literate and not too egotistical. He was therefore acceptable to a great many educated people who preferred reading about things to reading the things themselves: that is, he knew how to address a literate but not deeply interested public, with whose ethical and aesthetic assumptions he had no quarrel deep enough to demand an airing. Nowadays many of the assumptions have changed and the Sunday reviewers may well lack MacCarthy’s abundant charm, but it is still supposed that Sunday morning is a time for dressing-gowns, coffee and oranges, not rigour (though it is the moment when most of us do our week’s reading about the books we shall never read), and so the tradition continues. There is no evidence that matters have got worse, but we could hardly say they were better without waiting to see how our literary journalism would look in a volume of selections fifty years on.

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