Boomster and the Quack

Stefan Collini

  • Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870-1918 by Philip Waller
    Oxford, 1181 pp, £85.00, April 2006, ISBN 0 19 820677 1

In the early 20th century, literary pilgrims to Stratford-upon-Avon already knew a lot about the great writer they had come to honour. The author’s house in Church St has rather come down in the world since then and is now an outpost of Birmingham University, but in its heyday it was home to a writer with some claims to be the most widely read, in English and in translation, across the world. Visitors already knew so much because Marie Corelli not only boasted the longest entry in Who’s Who, but had enjoyed commercial success and international celebrity on a scale unprecedented in literary history.

Corelli occupied her Stratford home in a style commensurate with her sense of her artistic achievements. Her domestic regime was supported by a major-domo, two maids, a cook, a gardener, a houseman-cum-assistant gardener and eventually a chauffeur. As Philip Waller remarks in his extraordinary compendium of turn-of-the-century literary life in Britain, ‘Corelli’s sense of grandeur was the inverse of her sense of the absurd.’ He doesn’t stint his illustration of the point:

A daily ritual was her progress round Stratford in a miniature phaeton, like Cinderella, pulled by two Shetland ponies . . . complete with coachman perched on high behind . . . Best of all, she was regularly piloted down the Avon in her own gondola, named The Dream. This vehicle was specially imported from Venice complete with gondolier, until the Latin’s quarrelsome inebriation compelled his replacement by her costumed gardener.

This extravagant nonsense was possible because in the 1900s Corelli had an income of around £18,000 a year from sales of her novels alone (a figure not far short of a million pounds at today’s prices). Critical opinion then and now appears to be united in judging her books pretty much pure tosh; even the heroically laborious Waller remarks wearily of one of them that ‘it is a challenge to summarise this extraordinary tale’s crackpot complexity.’ In other words, the age of the bestseller had arrived.

If we jump forward a few years, to 2 September 1914, we encounter another tableau of literary life that is, in its way, no less striking than our Grub Street Cleopatra on her barge. As a junior member of the Cabinet with intellectual leanings, Charles Masterman had been charged with doing something that would produce effective propaganda for the Allied cause, especially in the neutral United States. He responded by convening in Whitehall a gathering of ‘eminent authors’, attended by William Archer, J.M. Barrie, Arnold Bennett, A.C. Benson, Hugh Benson, Laurence Binyon, Robert Bridges, Hall Caine, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Maurice Hewlett, Anthony Hope, W.J. Locke, E.V. Lucas, J.W. Mackail, John Masefield, A.E.W. Mason, Gilbert Murray, Henry Newbolt, Owen Seaman, G.M. Trevelyan, H.G. Wells and Israel Zangwill (Arthur Quiller-Couch and Rudyard Kipling sent messages of support). At first glance, this may seem to be the literary and intellectual establishment in its pomp. Reference works and biographies make it plain that these figures could collectively boast a remarkable level of official recognition (or at least would come to do so before their deaths). Taking such future honours into account, the group included several knights, two Nobel laureates, two poet laureates, three regius professors, two masters of Cambridge colleges, as well as holders of the Order of Merit and other honours.

Whether or not bringing together such a group of literary worthies seems the most obviously efficient way of producing usable official propaganda, it is the miscellaneousness of the gathering that now appears most striking. Not only did it embrace novelists, poets, essayists, critics, historians, scholars and all-purpose men of letters, it also spanned a wide range of literary levels, including representatives of the popular and middlebrow markets as well as the critically acclaimed, extending from the fastidious Hardy through several gradations to popular romancers such as Caine and Locke. (We are now more primed than their contemporaries to observe that they were all men; Corelli was one of several prominent female authors not present.) No doubt social contacts and bureaucratic indiscriminateness played some part in determining the make-up of the gathering, but it is hard to imagine a 21st-century British government responding to a crisis in the credibility of its foreign policy by summoning leading novelists and poets to Whitehall; it is even harder to believe that any such crew would include both A.S. Byatt and Jilly Cooper or place Jeffrey Archer alongside Geoffrey Hill.

How, if at all, are these two vignettes from the literary life of the period to be connected? Should we be wondering about the ways commercial changes in the world of publishing affected the standing of authors? Should we be thinking about the resilience of the older, capacious conception of ‘literature’ despite both the intellectual specialisation and the market segmentation of the closing decades of the 19th century? Should the mingling of canonical names with figures now largely unknown (Hugh Benson? J.W. Mackail? A.E.W. Mason?) surprise us? That Writers, Readers and Reputations does not even ask, still less answer, these or comparable questions is part of what makes it a puzzling production.

It is not easy to say what this book is about, other than by amplifying its subtitle. It is not held together by any argument that I can see; indeed, there is practically no analysis in it. In Waller’s own words, it ‘conjures up aspects of literary life in late 19th and early 20th-century England’. One sense of ‘conjure up’ is ‘cause to appear to the fancy’, and it may be that some such stirring of the historical imagination is Waller’s purpose, or would be were he to avow anything so vulgar as a purpose. Individual paragraphs of his book are engagingly written, but the relation between them, let alone between the chapters, is often maddeningly opaque. The book contains some deft portraiture, several good stories, a mass of quotations, a few statistics (well, numbers) and an abundance of miscellaneous information, some of it all but buried in the small type of long discursive footnotes. But there is scarcely a breath of argument, no hint as to which elements might be most significant, complete silence on whether some things may have been the cause of others. Although the book’s bibliography includes various items of secondary scholarship, there is no engagement with their claims, no sense of whether he is extending or revising historiographical orthodoxies. A couple of decades or so ago, after more than one Oxford-based historian had produced a work bulging with detailed description but almost devoid of efforts at analysis or explanation, it was joked that Oxford, having once been the home of lost causes, was now the home of lost causality. Philip Waller, a fellow of Merton for thirty years, confesses in his preface that he has been working on this book since the early 1980s – which may account for his having remained a fanatical devotee of such wilful historical agnosticism.

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