What’s wrong with Desmond?

Ian Hamilton

  • Clever Hearts: Desmond and Molly MacCarthy by Hugh Cecil and Mirabel Cecil
    Gollancz, 320 pp, £18.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 575 03622 2

The titles of Desmond MacCarthy’s books must have seemed to him unassailably offhand – Remnants, Portraits, Experience: titles nicely in tune with his well-known view of himself as a chap who could surely have done better. One of his favourite lines of poetry was Hartley Coleridge’s ‘For I have lost the race I never ran’ and early on in his career he got used to being spoken of as having squandered a great gift. Part of MacCarthy’s charm was that he had no serious quarrel with this view. In 1932, he decided – was persuaded – to issue a selection of the book reviews he had been turning out for the New Statesman and the Sunday Times. It was typical of the man that he should call it, simply, Criticism.

This time, however, MacCarthy had picked a bad year for offhandedness: 1932 was the year in which F.R. Leavis’s Scrutiny was launched. ‘Criticism’ was no longer a word to be murmured with self-deprecation. It had become an enterprise, an undertaking, a means of finding ‘solutions’ for ‘problems’ in the present culture. In Scrutiny’s second issue, Leavis published an article that asked: ‘What’s wrong with Criticism?’ Desmond MacCarthy’s modest compilation handily supplied some of the answers. Leavis wrote: ‘If a literary tradition does not keep itself alive here, in the present, not merely in new creation, but as a pervasive influence upon feeling, thought and standards of living (it is time we challenged the economist’s use of this phrase), then it must be pronounced to be dying or dead.’ By this reckoning, Desmond’s twenty-odd years’ worth of literary journalism seemed, shall we say, off-colour.

MacCarthy had perhaps been a trifle provocative, in his introduction to Criticism, when he boasted that his reviews were ‘clearly not the work of one who believes that the critic ought to turn personal impressions into general laws’ and, true enough, a year earlier – in Portraits – he had rapturously hymned Oxford’s Walter Raleigh as ‘the most spirited of professorial critics’. Even so, it was evident that for Leavis the real crime of this powerful weekly ‘critic’ was in his deep disinclination to take criticism seriously. According to MacCarthy, ‘the first step to culture is to learn to enjoy, not to know what is best.’ Indeed, he doubted that anyone could know ‘what is best’. For his book column in the New Statesman, he had signed himself ‘Affable Hawk’, but not because he wished to suggest any hint of beakiness. His predecessor had been John Squire, whose pseudonym was ‘Solomon Eagle’.

It is easy enough to see why, for such as Leavis, MacCarthy might be perceived as the apotheosis of indolent metropolitan bookman-ship. Scrutiny, after all, was in some measure aimed as a ‘serious’ riposte to MacCarthy’s own profoundly dilettante Life and Letters, a current periodical of which, in 1931, Max Beerbohm had felt moved to exclaim: ‘How it makes one ache to be living in those days of serious refinement and happiness! How it cheapens this thin, sad, hectic little era.’ And 1932, the year of Criticism, was also the year of Leavis’s New Bearings. Maurice Barings, it had to be admitted, were much more Desmond MacCarthy’s kind of thing.

And yet, somehow, poor MacCarthy: first Leavis and then, shortly afterwards, Geoffrey Grigson, who reserved a large cage for him in New Verse’s private zoo. (Roy Campbell’s notorious assault on Grigson was in fact prompted by something Grigson said about MacCarthy.) It must have seemed to Desmond faintly baffling that those fierce fellows should be getting so worked up about him. He had always been an easy-going type, well-liked at school and able to move easily between Bloomsbury and Chelsea. Although Virginia maybe condescended somewhat, he knew that she was very fond of him. But then, everybody was.

And it was not as if he really wanted to write book reviews. In 1905, after Eton and Cambridge (where he served as an Apostle under G.E. Moore and thus first weakened his creative powers: too much ‘What do you mean by that?’), MacCarthy drifted into literary journalism via small magazines set up by rich and dotty friends. The idea was that such jobs would keep him going while he worked on the large and brilliant work of fiction that was at first confidently expected of him by his Bloomsbury acquaintances and chums, both old and young. ‘When I first saw Desmond,’ Leonard Woolf later recalled, ‘he looked like a superb young eagle who with one sweep of his great wing could soar to any height he chose ... Why did he never fulfil his promise? Why did the splendid eagle degenerate into an affable hawk?’

This was a question that dominated MacCarthy’s life, both professional and private, for some twenty years – until he reached the age of about forty and was able to lament without too much fear of contradiction: ‘I was born to be a good writer and a rare friend. Idleness and fecklessness have spoiled me for myself and others.’ By this time it had dawned on him that even his best friends, indeed especially his best friends, seemed to prefer his conversation to his written work. Why not make his written work sound more like conversation? As his talk, both on the printed page and at table, became more beguilingly flute-like, so his eternal Chapter One became more leaden-seeming: ‘Henry has fallen in love on the platform of Paddington Station and is just passing Suttons Seeds on his way to Eton.’

MacCarthy married at 29 and his bride Molly was not slow to join the chorus of reproach. She was herself a writer of real verve and in her letters she spared him very little: ‘It is no use vaguely sitting down “to do a little work”,’ she’d say, ‘the time has come when you must simply fling things into the press or you will never do anything at all.’ And: ‘I do really think you are behaving feebly and in an unmanly way.’ Desmond seems not to have minded being told these things, not was he at all put out when, later on, Molly put him in her novel, A Pier and a Band, as the character Fitzgerald, who ‘seemed to take no pains whatsoever to keep himself up to the mark ... He might have been impressive if he had shown the slightest desire to be so.’

For several years ‘What’s wrong with Desmond?’ was the cry and many similes were strained for: he was like a ‘sieve, a drain, a wastepaper basket’, or ‘like a wave that never breaks, but lollops this way and that way’, or (and who can blame him here?) ‘like a dog who runs out when the door is open’. Was it innate laziness, was it that he loved life too much and literature too little, was it that he was too gregarious, too hard-up, too ready to suffer bores gladly, too talkative, too Irish? MacCarthy, although he called himself Anglo-Irish, was by parentage half-English and half-Prussian. There was an Irish background, though, and people liked to make mention of an ‘Irish grandfather, who sold off priceless land in Kensington, which would have earned the family a fortune in rent, and spent the proceeds on an unsuccessful lawsuit to recover worthless ancestral acres in County Clare’. Desmond, it was believed, had similar difficulties when it came to assessing his own worth.

Perhaps he married the wrong woman. If he did, nobody said so, although it was well-known that there was no sexual bond between Desmond and Molly and that she, quite early on, had allowed herself to be talked into a ‘trivial’ affair with Clive Bell. Desmond, whose own early dalliances were theoretically intense but not physically consummated (all the girls liked him far too much for that to be allowed to spoil it), was probably far more upset by this than he admitted. The outcome, at any rate, was that he spent more time out on the town, or at smart country-house weekends, while the nervously delicate Molly sat resentfully at home. She had a hearing ailment, too, which got worse: ‘the deaf wife of someone who thrived on conversation and theatre-going’.

Clever Hearts is an intelligent and sympathetic account of the marriage, co-written by the MacCarthys’ grandson and his wife, and it seems in no doubt that, for all their quarrels and estrangements, Desmond and Molly were a perfect match. It is certainly true that the pair stuck together and were very close towards the end (after Desmond had put a stop to the one non-trivial affair that did threaten to break up the marriage), but rather too many of their energetic years seem to have been spent in useless conflict. If the question really is ‘Why didn’t Desmond deliver?’ then we perhaps ought not to shrink from wondering what might have been if he had married someone else. After all, he did once advise Cyril Connolly to marry a woman who attracted him in preference to one he rather liked. And easily the most affecting document quoted by the Cecils is a letter from Molly on the matter of her sexual loneliness:

  You see at the bottom of it all is something that I daily want to tell you in a serious way but feel sensitive about saying ... that I myself have felt almost daily for about a year a great wish to go to bed with you but am too proud seriously to ask it.

  You seem so cold that it has passed by quite unrealised by you that in the last 3 years I have only twice been to bed with you. This at the most passionate age in my life, (I can tell from my feelings) when I feel force of life dying within me of starvation, deafness coming, morbidness getting a clutch on me. But I do not reproach. I suppose it can’t be helped that you cannot wish it for yourself, but I think you ought to face this with me with dignity and seriousness. (I have been hurt that you have not realised that under light words, I have been feeling acutely really.)

  I feel that I have lately been relegated to the light chaffy side of you. You do not give me any serious life at all ... But dearest I love only you in this world, even more than Bumpy [their son, Dermod] – if I lost you I would simply lose life; therefore you must help me to make your life happy by helping me to be generous ... But how to do it? Oh God. It is no use the way you pass it off in chaff ...

There is no record of his response but written on the letter’s envelope there is a further plea from Molly: ‘Don’t leave this about. Found in the bathroom.’

The Cecils are too fond of their subjects to take sides, but their tendency is to accept that Desmond was indeed the charming, exasperating failure he was said to be – a judgment that rather depends on believing in his original high gifts. To the uninvolved, the truth seems to be that of his type – the type being, I suppose, post-Edwardian belletrist – Desmond MacCarthy was a stylish and mostly honourable performer. He could be a witty, sometimes moving memoirist – on Henry James, for instance, or on the mood in London at the declaration of World War One – and several of his essays thoroughly deserve (as he might well have put it) not to be forgotten. Also, when he took the trouble, he was a persuasive ‘close reader’ (see his articles on Yeats and Chekhov). His pieces often tailed off near the end, or they might wearily jettison some critical point rather than risk seeming to enforce it. Partly this was to do with his famous indolence and unreliability: many a piece was written with the night-printer at his elbow. Partly it came from a journalist’s fear of boring his reader, from suddenly realising, two-thirds of the way through, that he had bitten off more than his thousand words could chew.

Of course, academic critics like Leavis would have been fortified in their contempt by special pleadings of this sort: if you really are a journalist, don’t call yourself a critic. And, they might have added, if you are a journalist, then kindly tread with caution when you are dealing with current events. MacCarthy in the late Twenties and early Thirties believed himself to be living through a ‘rather silly’ literary period. Gertrude Stein was one of the few authors able to ruffle his affable old feathers – ‘How, one asks in amazement, can anyone suppose this sort of writing to have any value?’ – and there was always just a trace of this amazement in his attitude to Eliot and Joyce: enough of a trace, anyway, for him to get sneered at for his fuddy-duddy views.

In fact, MacCarthy was fully alert to the importance of Ulysses and The Waste Land; he clearly knew what they were meant to be about and how they differed in quality from the works of Gertrude Stein. (Ulysses, he wrote, ‘contains more artistic dynamite than any book published in years. That dynamite is placed under the modern novel.’) His problem was that he found nothing in these writers to enjoy, and he genuinely distrusted those who said they did, and it was a short step from debunking the Literary Snob to finding himself custodian-elect of middlebrow literary opinion.

MacCarthy continued reviewing for the Sunday Times until he died, aged 75, in 1952, knighted at the last for his services to Criticism. By the late Fifties, when I first came across his name, he had been completely written off, or so it seemed. His books were out of print and Leavis’s influence was at its peak. It was not until 1984, when MacCarthy’s son-in-law, Lord David Cecil, edited a new selection of MacCarthy’s writings, that it occurred to me to find out about him for myself – i.e. to read something he had written. He turned out to be much sharper and funnier, and more stylish, than I had been led to believe – and far more likeable. And this was a good, if shaming lesson in the ways of literary prejudice.