Against the Pussyfoots

Steven Shapin

George Saintsbury was in the taste business. By profession, he made judgments of taste on works of literature. He produced dozens of editions of the work of novelists and poets and more than 50 monographs, including A History of Elizabethan Literature, A History of English Prosody, The English Novel, A History of the French Novel and, self-referentially, books about books about books – A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe from the Earliest Texts to the Present Day, A History of English Criticism. In late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he was the supreme arbiter of literary taste, the ‘king of critics’. He had established a reputation as an editor, reviewer and political journalist by the mid-1870s, before becoming regius professor of rhetoric and English literature at Edinburgh from 1895 to 1915. Yet even in the 1890s, rival critics thought his work ‘old-fashioned’, and none of his monographs is currently to be had in a properly published form (although some of his editions are in print). His style doesn’t suit our deconstructionist and contextualising times, and modern sensibilities are embarrassed by his critical confidence and his preciousness, projected in sentences as stuffed as a Victorian drawing-room:

For passionate sense of the good things of earth, and at the same time for mystical feeling of their insecurity, for exquisite style without the frigidity and the over-correctness which the more deliberate stylists frequently display, for a blending of nature and art that seems as if it must have been as simply instinctive in all as it certainly was in some, the poets of the Tribe of Ben, of the Tribe of Donne, who illustrated the period before Puritanism and Republicanism combined had changed England from merriment to sadness, stand alone in letters.

Only one of Saintsbury’s books is still read. It has never been out of print or out of favour: first editions are highly valued in the antiquarian book trade, and it alone has sustained Saintsbury’s reputation into the 21st century. It too is a book about a book, but the book it is about was written by Saintsbury himself; it was never published, and it was never meant to be read by anyone but himself.

In his mid-seventies, suffering from gout, rheumatism, failing eyesight and the falling-down dizziness of Ménière’s disease, Saintsbury had been for some time under doctors’ orders to limit his alcohol intake, at first of port and then of claret and Burgundy. It was in these circumstances that he signed a contract with Macmillan (which had brought out most of his recent literary criticism) to publish a book commenting on a ledger he had kept for about three decades. This ledger – an ordinary exercise book – was used to organise his wine cellar and to memorialise what had passed through it and, subsequently, through him. The book about the ledger was an exercise in critical nostalgia. ‘All alcoholic drinks, rightly used, are good for body and soul alike,’ Saintsbury wrote. ‘It is the unbroken testimony of all history that alcoholic liquors have been used by the strongest, wisest, handsomest, and in every way best races of all times.’ But now he could no longer drink like the heroic toper he once had been. Where, indeed, were the wines of yesteryear? Where were their memories? And where were the stout-hearted, free-spirited drinkers in a world besieged by ‘pussyfoots’, Saintsbury’s favourite term of abuse for American temperance campaigners and their British camp-followers? The instant success of Notes on a Cellar-Book on its appearance in 1920 took both author and publisher by surprise – a bittersweet exposure of their imperfect judgment of readers’ tastes.

Saintsbury didn’t much like contemporary literature or contemporary trends in criticism. Distancing himself from gestures at ‘scientific’ or ‘impressionistic’ criticism, he included in Essays in English Literature 1780-1860 (1890) one of his rare attempts to spell out the critic’s duty: the first task – ‘the full and proper office of the critic’ – was to judge, to ‘class and value’ literary works; the second was to give a ‘tolerably instructed person’ with no experience of the original a reliable idea of what it was like. Saintsbury knew how to do that with poetry, plays and novels, but there were few patterns then available for judging and describing wine.

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