Bringing it home to Uncle Willie

Frank Kermode

  • Joseph Conrad: A Biography by Roger Tennant
    Sheldon Press, 276 pp, £12.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 85969 358 9
  • Edward Garnett: A Life in Literature by George Jefferson
    Cape, 350 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 224 01488 9
  • The Edwardian Novelists by John Batchelor
    Duckworth, 251 pp, £18.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1109 7
  • The Uses of Obscurity: The Fiction of Early Modernism by Allon White
    Routledge, 190 pp, £12.00, August 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0751 5

A biography of Conrad that makes no claim to add to the voluminous information already on record, but runs amiably and quite deftly over the course, may have its uses. Not everybody has the time or the desire to tackle the thousand pages of Karl’s Joseph Conrad, or the shelf of books – Jocelyn Baines, Norman Sherry, Zdzislaw Najder, Eloise Knapp Hay – that would provide a richer and more chaotic account of this mostly painful career; and not everybody will be put off by Mr Tennant’s not saying anything very interesting about the fictions, of which he thinks Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness are the best. A lot of quite decent lives of famous people are not strictly necessary, though they are often the ones that get read. A good life of Edward Garnett, on the other hand, might, since his is a known but hardly a famous name, fail to attract much attention. But everybody who has an interest in 20th-century English fiction should read Mr Jefferson’s book. It is sometimes a bit dull and occasionally ill-written, but it is probably the most important of the batch here under review.

Garnett belonged to that now extinct class of person called ‘bookmen’; his wife Constance was a bookwoman, and her translations from the Russian probably had as much influence on English fiction as her husband’s judgments, in his capacity as publisher’s reader and reviewer, of new indigenous writing. It would be hard to name an Edwardian literary foyer more central or more powerful than their house in Kent. We probably think first of Garnett as the friend of Conrad, or as the man who cut Sons and Lovers (for structural and commercial reasons, it seems, not to eliminate sexy passages – and Lawrence wholly approved). And it is true that he had an instinct for, and endless patience with, those who tend to be regarded as the better sort of novelist. He was the advocate of W.H. Hudson in the early years of the century, and, a generation later, counsellor to the 24-year-old Henry Green, who rewrote Blindness in accordance with Garnett’s advice, and many years later attributed to his adviser ‘almost any original idea’ he had gained about how to write novels.

Yet it would be misleading to think of Garnett as the natural champion of the avant-garde. He was, though always as an employee, very much a part of the commercial world of literature. Books had to be sold, and that consideration was never far from his mind as he wrote his rather stilted reports. As a novel-surgeon he was always ready to use the knife, and authors, especially beginners, were usually compliant. He certainly had a wonderful nose for talent, but he also valued the successful potboiler, and he seems to have thought of himself as having a duty to make the gifted, who were likely to depart most from conventional manners of writing, turn their thoughts to producing what might give them their share of what was still, before the first war, a bull market in fiction. Just as he pruned Lawrence, and later exasperated him by failing to see what new things were going on in The Rainbow, so he urged Conrad not to put too much distance between himself and the public, and to write more straightforwardly. It was this commercial instinct – the assumption that the novel still belonged where it had begun, to a bourgeois public as well as to a minority of extremely refined students of the form – that lost him Lawrence. He did wonders for Galsworthy, though he knew him to be an inferior artist. Of course he wasn’t infallible. He preferred The Country House to The Man of Property, which is very hard to explain; he turned down Wells’s The Time Machine, which is less difficult, for he liked ‘Hogarthian truthfulness’ better than fantasy; and he wrote a respectful but dismissive report on Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, saying it needed a lot of work. It was ‘too discursive, formless, unrestrained’, despite its, so to speak, Hogarthian truthfulness; and this is easiest of all to understand, for he sensed in Joyce something uncomfortably gifted, alien, not suited to a public which bought the satisfactions of fiction, as it had bought its liberty, for cash. I adapt the words of another alien, Conrad; they occur in Under Western Eyes, another novel that proved too much for Garnett.

He once remarked admiringly of the young Arnold Bennett that ‘the most interesting thing about him is the strange amalgam he presents of commercial man pure and simple, and author’. But he had to deal with less adaptable authors, and he did so with skill and endless enthusiasm. His review of Where Angels Fear to Tread gave a new and unknown author ‘a chance of reaching a public’, and Forster was always grateful for it. Reviewing Forster’s second novel, The Longest Journey, Garnett quoted a remark of Agnes in the book. She asks Rickie why he can’t make his stories more obvious: ‘Uncle Willie floundered helplessly.’ ‘It is not easy,’ added Garnett, ‘to explain the subtle quality of Mr Forster’s brilliant novel to Uncle Willie and his kinsfolk ... How can ... this network of tiny touches be brought home to Uncle Willie?’ That was a large part of his job. Forster was not alone in his plight (‘the Uncle Willies are encompassing me sorely’) for by 1907 there was a real gulf between what some writers wanted to write and what Uncle Willie thought it reasonable to have to read.

That gulf may be measured in several different ways: one of them is simply to juxtapose the popular novels of the day with Henry James’s Prefaces, then in progress. Another is to recall Conrad’s hatred of the public, and all the talk of new techniques, of an ideal novel that might, as Flaubert had wished, be ‘about’ nothing at all, which would not please Uncle Willie. Among highbrows, the standing of fiction as art had never been higher, and when Lawrence called the novel the one bright book of life he was saying in his own way what he must often have heard as Garnett’s opinion. Yet it seemed to artists that to make it so they must do what Uncle Willie did not want. Garnett’s job was to bring the parties together.

His predicament derived at least in part from changes in the book trade at the beginning of the century. The three-decker novel, Gissing’s commodious rack, expired in the Nineties. In the upheaval that followed, old firms, bewildered by new needs, went out of business, and new ones appeared, ready to study and exploit a market now calling for shorter and cheaper books. They were no longer required to comply with the rigid demands of the circulating libraries: so all at once the freedom of the novelist and the size of his potential public were greatly enlarged. But writers might use their freedom to alienate the public, and getting them together was work for specialists, like the first of the famous agents, Pinker, or like Garnett. The publisher’s reader had never been so important. Without his understanding of the market and his power to persuade doubtful publishers, he could not have been what he was, the greatest friend of the serious author at this moment of transition. He served his boss, but was always on the side of writing. When fears induced by the spread of literacy led to a resurgence of censorship, official and unofficial, Garnett led the resistance: ‘The spirit of censorship never alters: it is always orthodox, and it is always to be seen energetically defending the big battalions. For this reason alone any publisher’s reader who is worth his salt takes a kindly interest in the fate of books that are on the side of the minority.’ When editors asked him, in his reviews, to show more favour to the conventional, and to go easy on attacking puritanism, he quietly carried on, just as he carried on his attempt to make good writers conscious of their audience. He kept it up into his old age, refusing all honours, academic and national, to preserve his independence; he was sometimes in the wrong (he baulked at Beckett) but never stiff in opinions. He was certainly worth his salt.

The literary world in which Garnett played so central a part is the subject of John Batchelor’s book. Ours was born of it, but there is no very strong family resemblance. A few writers still make fortunes out of literature, but one’s best chance of doing so was to be alive at some point between 1850 and 1914, and perhaps especially towards the end of that period. Bennett’s income, roughly translated into modern money, was sometimes close to a million a year, and Wells, Galsworthy and Kipling cannot have been far behind. Yet there was also a line of writers who seemed unable to tap this wealth – Gissing, Meredith, Conrad, Ford. Between The Secret Agent and Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks, both published in 1907, there is an enormous space, whether you estimate it by sales or by quality: but the space is not absolutely vacant. Where, along the line between Glyn and Conrad, do you place The Old Wives’ Tale? Bennett started life a ‘modernist’ and talked about Flaubert, and about Jamesian ‘doing’: yet James, at the end of his life, chose Clayhanger for his most deploring censure. ‘Yes, yes, but is this all? These are the circumstances of interest – we see, we see; but where is the interest itself?’ James isn’t quite fair, but his remarks illustrate well enough that tension between commerce and ‘interest’ which the careers of Bennett and Garnett, in their different ways, exemplify.

Mr Batchelor surveys this scene. Print was ‘enjoying its last few years of undisputed primacy’, but pleasant as this might be for writers, they were not altogether happy with the Condition of England: poverty, public health, the penal system disgraced our imperial wealth,[*] and the lower middle classes balanced uneasily on the edge of what they tended to call ‘the abyss’ – that pit of poverty and degradation into which the genteel and unlucky might fall. The suburbs grew, and with them the suburban cult of the rural. Fears that the refinement of English women had emasculated English men lie behind the plot of Three Weeks, in which the sexuality of a foreign female puts the imperial Britisher back on top; and fears that emasculated men could not hold on to empire, or even ensure that the unrivalled happiness of the English middle class would last, gave rise to the genre of invasion novels. The best book on these matters is Samuel Hynes’s The Edwardian Turn of Mind; Mr Batchelor urbanely glances at them, leaving too much out in his desire to get on to his principal exhibits.

The chief of these is Conrad, but although it has some interesting things to say about that writer’s interest in ‘degeneracy’ (a popular theme) I found this part of the book unexciting – mostly intelligent summary, with little in the way of new insight. It is sharper on Ford, who is scolded for his statement that the literary market in his time was hostile to writers: ‘I suppose that never before was the financial struggle among the literary classes so bitter and so ignoble.’ He was, of course, thinking of himself, and perhaps of the fact that the non-gentlemen Wells and Bennett were doing pretty well: ‘like Gissing,’ says Batchelor, ‘he externalises the pain and makes it universal.’ Something similar might be said of Conrad. Batchelor’s neat portrait of Ford, gifted and silly, sad and vainglorious, valuably enhances one’s sense of the complexities of the literary scene. But, as Henry James might have said, he is better on the circumstances of the interest than on the interest itself, better on Ford’s crowing and whining, and on the English Review, than on the novels. He credits Ford with a ‘profound intuition of evil’ but probably shares the view, here ascribed to others, that The Good Soldier has ‘too much virtuosity and too little substance ... being all angles and glare’ – an epigram too good to have been coined on behalf of people he disagrees with. Indeed he sees Ford as an exasperated contemporary might have done, and seems to have little sense of what the old man meant when he said he was ‘mad about writing’.

On the whole Batchelor prefers circumstances to interest, favours the kind of writing that, in James’s deprecatory expression, hugs the shore of the real, and is little concerned with the passion for doing, for contrived angles and glare. He is much more sympathetic to Wells than to Ford. Although he praises the art of Love and Mr Lewisham and Tono-Bungay, he is happier with the Wells who explicitly renounced ‘art’. Wells imitated or parodied James in equipping a collected edition of his works with prefaces, using them to explain that he was as unlike James as possible; and Batchelor approves of this. ‘Surely,’ he says, without apparent irony, ‘there was enough formal perfection in the period already in Conrad, James, George Moore, Ford.’ He seems to have little idea of what ‘formal perfection’ is for: he sees it as a decorative extra. Thus he remarks that The Old Wives’ Tale has a subject that might well have lent itself to ‘modernist indirections’: but Bennett preferred a treatment ‘more traditional and in a sense more honest’ and ‘true to life’. One likes to hear Bennett praised, but this way of doing it suggests that ‘modernist indirection’, the cultivation of ‘interest’ and the challenge to narrative convention were somehow false or dishonest.

Mr Batchelor set himself rather awkward chronological limits, and so will not speak of Riceyman Steps (which might have complicated his account of Bennett) or of A Passage to India (for him the only Forster novel of importance), though he lets in Ford’s Parade’s End because it deals with his period. This restriction again tells against ‘modernist indirection’, for these excluded novels (Bennett’s in 1923, Forster’s in 1924) represent an important though transient balance between writing and commerce, circumstances and interest. Forster, here considered only as an Edwardian (though Maurice is admitted in evidence), is treated with some distaste; Where Angels Fear to Tread, in which Garnett found so much promise, is dismissed as ‘beginner’s luck’, and one need not dissent from the view that A Passage to India is vastly more important than any of the earlier novels to feel that there is some perversity in Batchelor’s failure to take any account of what makes those books worth reading. Since the circumstances strike him as tedious, he tends to take Uncle Willie’s view of the indirections which create their interest. He is more at home with Galsworthy, and especially with The Man of Property. On the whole, though, he shows little concern for the matter that most interested Garnett: he sees in the novel during these years a conflict between a changed idea of the hero and the inherited forms he has to inhabit, rather than between that inheritance and the desire of some writers to develop an artist’s concern with technical possibilities latent in those forms.

Allon White’s book addresses similar questions much more ambitiously, and his answers make more sense. An interest in the doing, in angles and glare, tends to produce obscurity, and a peculiarly modern obscurity is White’s subject. He thinks it results from ‘a deep cultural transformation’ – certain ‘regularities’, including conventional coherence, objective representation, ‘sincerity’ as defined by Trilling, began to fall apart in the Seventies and Eighties, and a new and necessarily difficult sort of writing ensued. In this kind of writing obscurity is not accidental but constitutive; early instances of it may well exhibit a certain nostalgia for the old ‘referential fixity’, but the impulse is to dissolve that, and replace it with a ‘dense textuality’. The result calls for ‘symptomatic reading’, an inadequate expression borrowed from Althusser: the idea is that texts of this sort require the reader to divine what is not directly stated, though without treating the text itself as a mere rind. Readers of this sort encourage appropriate sorts of writing, and so you get books encouraging ‘suspicious’ or ‘hermeneutic’ readings. Their object is not to discover secrets, but to experience a necessary and constitutive secrecy.

White sensibly observes that the conventional mimesis of reality was bound to suffer when it became usual to remark that the unconscious is omitted from the representation. He rather curiously selects Lombroso and Vernon Lee as typically symptomatic readers, and The Interpretation of Dreams, so decisive for all later interpretations of interpretation, came a bit late for his purposes. Arthur Symons observed in 1898 that ‘it is not natural to be what is called “natural” any longer,’ adding that ‘we no longer have the mental attitude of those to whom a story was but a story and all stories good’. A sense of the falsity of the conventions of representation led to those passionate inquiries into the nature of the instrument, of fiction itself, which, among the artists, became the right way to the truth.

I don’t believe in the sharpness of White’s distinctions, and he neglects that space between the conventional and the ‘experimental’ of which I spoke earlier. He is good at expounding the sorts of secrecy to be found in James, who often represents the conflict between the critic’s passion for secrets and the author’s necessary secrecy as comic, and nearly always represents it as a sort of displaced sexual perversion. He swoops on passages that compare life to an indecipherable text: The Golden Bowl is one, and Victory is another; he might have added, as more insistent on the point, Under Western Eyes.

He is surely right in his remarks on Meredith’s obscurity, which he relates to a sense of shame; he knows the importance of lying and of indirection; he is capable of using his theories to develop quite brilliant critical insights, especially into James (he even speaks with originality of the most famous page in The Ambassadors); and he is entitled to say that, for good or ill, Heart of Darkness ‘solicits a hermeneutic approach’. But good as it is, his book is seriously incomplete. Like almost every work that argues for catastrophic cultural transformations, it omits to look at the past. For example, reflections on the topic of the world-as-text ought to recall the great antiquity of that topic; arguments about constitutive secrecy should not forget that notions of such a secrecy are not only ancient but have, historically, been found to be consistent with the belief that texts can give us a plain sense of things – that open proclamation and constitutive secrecy are old partners.

It is true that ‘hermeneutic invitations’ grew more pressing in this period, but it cannot be true that they were an absolutely new development. It is a reflex of modern criticism, reinforced by succeeding waves of social and cultural historiography, to attribute revolutionary alterations in our sense of the world and of the text to particular events and persons: to Mallarmé, to the Civil War, to Joyce. Yet the truth may equally be that we enjoyed a brief holiday, perhaps a couple of centuries, from very ancient notions of the relation between texts and worlds; that the illusion of unproblematical referentiality eventually broke down and left us more or less where we were, though with new ways of saying what it is like there.

Mr White does not consider this problem: how is it that modern literary criticism, which is the heir of the primary inventors he concerns himself with, can find in earlier novels material for similar ‘hermeneutic’ investigations? I mean novels of which it would be merely provocative to say that they ‘solicit a hermeneutic approach’. It is a large question, but it should be answered if we don’t want the Modern to become as slippery a concept as most period descriptions. If its distinguishing characteristic is ‘positive obscurity’, how is it that such obscurity co-exists, both in modern and in other ages, with apparent perspicuity? How new is the new secrecy? Why must it be, in the sense White gives the word, merely obscure?

It is quite evident that the interest shown by Batchelor and White in the Edwardian novel is justified: it is an interesting moment in the history of the form, and in the history of representation. Neither has anything much to say about painting and music during these years, and that omission is obviously limiting: but it is even more so that the focus of attention should continue to be on Conrad, especially Heart of Darkness, and the late James. More needs to be said about writers who tried to follow Garnett’s advice, and make hermeneutic solicitations without repelling Uncle Willie. Batchelor thinks that far too much has been written about Forster, but in some ways the modest achievement of, say, A Room with a View may tell us more about what was going on than the fortissimo presentation of ‘symptoms’ in Heart of Darkness. Perhaps if we could get behind the bland formalities of Garnett’s reports we might know more than these books – though White’s is in many ways admirable – could hope to tell us.

[*] The myth and the realities of Empire, as they are reflected in the fiction of Kipling and Conrad, are the subject of a well-written essay by John McClure (Kipling and Conrad: The Colonial Fiction, Harvard University Press, 182 pp., £11.55, November 1981, 0 674 50529 8). Mr McClure is sensitive to the local, temporary and personal aspects of the authors’ interest in colonialism, but also expressly committed to a more modern anti-colonialist politics.