Aspirational reading

            In the years before his marriage my father began collecting the reference works that he would continue to consult till the end of his life. He must have acquired his set of the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1920s, along with the accompanying glass-fronted bookcase to house them. In later years he mourned not having bought the more expensive set with the red half-leather bindings. But the green cloth-bound sixteen volume set that he’d bought on the installment system must have represented a significant expense at the time. Extensively advertised as representing “the high tide mark of human knowledge” Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 10.45.23 AMthrough a direct marketing scheme that emphasized value for money, even calculating the number of words per shilling the purchaser would be buying, the Britannica took shrewd aim at an insecure lower-middle class inclined to be deferential to cultural authority. The Britannica’s authority remained incontrovertible in my father’s mind and one of the green volumes would routinely be hauled out from its glass-fronted temple to settle any factual dispute. “I’m going to consult the Britannica,” he would announce before stumping down the corridor to fetch one of the big green volumes. As far as he was concerned, whatever he read aloud to us from those finely-printed onion-skin pages was incontrovertible truth. My mother was more sceptical, and would point out that she would put more trust in an “up-to-date” reference work, although no such entity was actually available on our bookshelves.

       When I inherited the Britannica set after my father’s death I began to understand something of his awe of the work’s authority. It described and analysed industrial processes, for example, in lavish detail and provided botanical information with a precision only usually found in specialized reference works.

Illustration to entry on Bryphotae (mosses).

Illustration to entry on Bryphotae (mosses).

It also proved to be a treasure trove of Edwardian attitudes  and prejudices, embodying an imperialist and masculinist stance that invited examination. It also led me to wonder about the small handful of women contributors who found themselves lingering on fringes of the array of “eminent men of letters” who formed the Britannica’s hierarchy and set myself the task of bringing some of their struggles to light in my book, A Position to Command Respect: Women and the Eleventh Britannica.

Evidently, my father’s first experience of fatherhood just before World War Two prompted fresh forays into encyclopedic sets. He subscribed to an Odhams twelve volume encyclopedia for children edited by Ernest Ogan under the title The Wonderland of Knowledge.Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 11.30.34 AM Evidently he felt compelled to economize after the fourth of the black-bound volumes had arrived, and chose the cheaper  binding for the remaining eight volumes of the series. The title pages displayed an impressive array of figures and objects signifying “knowledge”—Athena Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 9.53.56 AM posed in front of a set of columns, a large globe, big leather-bound volumes tumbling out of the frame and in the distance a sailing ship, representing, presumably, voyages of exploration. The actual contents of The Wonderland seems to have been less memorable. He persisted in reading to us from the series of “Tansy and Bobbles on Fable Island” stories, dreamed up apparently by the series’ editors as a way of rendering Aesop palatable to the young. But my main recollection is of developing a sneaking dislike of the pious Tansy and Bobbles and their cherubic representations in the stories’ illustrations.

His quest for literary authority figures resulted in his acquiring all manner of guides to “literary taste” in addition to encyclopedic guides to literature. In 1938 he had paid sixpence for one of the first Penguin books,Literary taste cover a Pelican special, which reprinted Arnold Bennett’s 1909 essay Literary Taste: How to Form it edited and updated by Frank Swinnerton. The book not only offered chapters on “How to Read a Classic”and “Wrestling with an Author,” but the subtitle promised “detailed instructions for collecting a complete library of English literature.” Clearly addressed to the new reading public, framed by Bennett and Swinnerton as “the average decent person,” the text not only prescribes specific books to be purchased but offers estimates of probable prices. Swinnerton is apologetic that Bennett’s 1909 assessment of the cost of accumulating such a “library” at £26 14s 7d had escalated to £87 18s 6d in the nearly thirty years that had intervened. The reader addressed by Bennett and Swinnerton is assumed to be a neophyte whose tastes are to be shaped by flat pronouncements, sometimes italicized for emphasis: “Your taste has to pass before the bar of the classics. That is the point. If you differ with a classic, it is you who are wrong, and not the book.”  The Bennett/Swinnerton approach is a more imperious parallel to the efforts of publishers like J.M. Dent to provide the basis of a “democratic library” of classic literature within the reach of a new reading public propelled by formal education out of their original artisanal class.

My father clearly belonged to that class of “self-improving young men” noted by Arnold Bennett Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 11.50.06 AMin Books and Persons who were the typical buyers of “cheap editions of works which the world will not willingly let die,” in such series as the Temple Classics, Everyman’s Library, the World’s Classics and the Universal Library. He was guided by literary mentors like Bennett, not only in his choice of book purchases, but in his approach to reading. The Bennett/Swinnerton prescription for approaching the classics against which the reader is urged to test himself is via a preparatory reading of the biographical entry on the author in an encyclopedia. Chamber’s Cyclopedia of English Literature is repeatedly cited as the reference work of choice.Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 11.53.33 AM My father’s lifelong reliance on the three volumes of the Chamber’s Cyclopedia was incomprehensible to me until, three decades after his death, I read the Bennett/Swinnerton chapter on “How to Read a Classic” and realized that it prescribed a reading practice he followed without question all his life.

His reverence for SwinnertonScreen Shot 2013-03-04 at 11.42.14 AM as a literary guide and mediator seems to have transcended, or perhaps managed to bypass, Swinnerton’s publicly aired contempt for Robert Louis Stevenson who my father deified throughout his life. Possibly the confidence with which Swinnerton pronounced on literary merits and demerits as well as Swinnerton’s contempt for Modernist writers was a reassuring contrast to his own many cultural uncertainties. He had bought Swinnerton’s Georgian Literary Scene when it appeared in the Everyman series. There, Swinnerton dismisses Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf with Lytton Strachey, 1923.

Virginia Woolf with Lytton Strachey, 1923.

in a few pages, condemning both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse for “vagueness” and suggesting that Woolf’s rendering of her characters’ thought processes merely resembles “a kind of mental sickness, the sort of jumble that people have in their heads when they are going under or emerging from an anaesthetic.”  Swinnerton’s anti-modernism not only influenced impressionable readers like my father but, because of his role as publisher’s reader, it  had a bearing on what was to appear in print. At Chatto and Windus he flatly condemned Pound,

Pound (right) with James Joyce in Paris, 1923.(New York Public Library)

Pound (right) with James Joyce in Paris, 1923.(New York Public Library)

opining that “his reputation among normal writers is that of a charlatan.” The notion of a “normal writer” as a critical criterion now seems very odd indeed, but it’s surprising how frequently the word “normal,” along with general assumptions about psychological normalcy, is astonishingly frequent in the work of Swinnerton and many of his contemporaries. But Swinnerton’s influence was probably already on the wane by the time The Georgian Literary Scene appeared in 1935. His sniping at Modernist writers there and elsewhere were shots in a losing battle which saw Woolf’s disdain for Swinnerton’s friend and mentor Arnold Bennett mar the latter’s literary standing for most of the century.


Aspiring to a “library”

The Swinnerton-Bloomsbury culture war, had he been aware of it, would have been unlikely to weaken my father’s dependence on the guidance that Swinnerton and his kind purported to offer him as a reader. His book-buying pattern of the time matches quite closely the recommendations provided in Literary Taste: How to Form It. Swinnerton, like several of the other “bookmen” of the period was lavish in such advice and fond of generating lists of “great books” which were put forward as the nucleus of a “library” to be acquired by aspirational readers. Clement Shorter was one of several such self-style bookmen who

Clement Shorter's bookplate designed by Walter Crane

Clement Shorter’s bookplate designed by Walter Crane

produced a list of  a hundred “great books”. Shorter uses Lord Acton’s similar list of “best books,” compiled in 1883 and first published in 1905 in the Pall Mall Magazine, as the springboard for his own recommendations while giving a brief nod to Sir John Lubbock’s more widely-circulated list, composed in 1886. While Acton’s list was compiled with,  “any English youth, whose education is finished, who knows common things, and is not training for a profession,” in mind, Shorter’s list is aimed at a less elite group, identified as those “who have had no educational advantage in early years.” Unlike the Bennett/Swinnerton recommendations in Literary Taste, Shorter’s list makes few concessions to the financial circumstances of the aspirational reader. He is frequently at pains to recommend specific editions. For example, he acknowledges the availability of De Quincey’s work in cheap editions by Newnes as well as the World’s Classics and Everyman series, but then urges that the sixteen volume edition of De Quincey’s works published by A & C Black “should be in every library.” He warns against readers being, “ beguiled into subscribing for some cheap series which will save him the trouble of selecting.” Checking Shorter’s list against what I can reconstruct of my father’s book collection, it appears that he had purchased at least sixty of Shorter’s prescribed one hundred, although very rarely in the edition Shorter recommends. They included several uninviting tomes such as Motley’s three volume Rise of the Dutch Republic which, I think, remained perpetually unopened by anyone in the house.

The sour prescriptiveness of Shorter, Swinnerton and their kind must, it seems to me, have blighted much of my father’s pleasure in book-buying and magnified further his ever-present social and cultural anxieties. Occasionally though, the advice of these “bookmen” led to his discovery of a genuinely enjoyable book which made no claims to particular moral or intellectual improvement. George Jackson, whose 1933 Half Hours in a Library had also offered tips on “How To Tell a Good Poem From a Bad One,” introduced my father to James Woodforde’s

James Woodforde, portrait by his nephew, Samuel, 1740.

James Woodforde, portrait by his nephew, Samuel, 1740.

Diary of a Country Parson, one of the few books which made him laugh out loud.

For all the advice about accumulating a book collection offered so copiously by the various bookmen who compiled widely-noted canonical lists, my father, like thousands of others, relied on the imprimatur of Dent’s Everyman series, and, later, of Penguin books. Everyman, with its ever-consoling quotation from the medieval play, “Everyman I will go with thee and be thy guide—in thy most need to go by thy side,” reliably reprinted on the front endpapers of each Everyman volume, formed the core of his collection. Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 11.00.53 AM

Tellingly, the Everyman editions are the hardcover books whose endpapers show his clearest penciled signatures of ownership –a firm cursive script diagonally across the front endpaper with a brisk underline. The Everyman series offered a sense of solid reassurance. Designated as the “Everyman’s Library” it carried the implication that the purchaser was not just a casual browser but a man who was intent on developing a personal library for his own edification. Each volume was numbered so that the readers could gauge their progress in building their own collection. Under Ernest Rhys’s *general editorship the volumes also included a classified list of the entire series. For example, my father’s 1937 edition of G. Lacey May’s anthology, English Religious Verse,English Religious verse volume 937 in the Everyman series, concludes with fifteen pages of backmatter listing the 936 previous volumes, helpfully classified into thirteen different categories of genre and subject. Such a list, like the various compilations  of  “best books” implied, like my father’s lifelong favorite reference work, the 1910 Britannica, that there was a stable, quantifiable body of knowledge to be mastered and that assembling the appropriate “library” was a vital step in that direction. The Everyman selections were  available in two, and sometimes three, levels of binding, cloth, “library,” and, for certain volumes, leather. In general my father bought the cheaper cloth-bound editions, although his three volume, rarely-opened, edition of Montaigne’s essays was in the more expensive library edition.

While Everyman and Penguin served to guide my father’s purchase of literary “masterpieces,” it was a more challenging project to develop more than a passing acquaintance with the selected works. He turned for guidance to another set of authority figures—the anthologists who culled choice fragments from favorites in their own libraries and arranged them to represent particular themes or historical periods. His years of energetic book-acquisition during the 1920s and 30s as a newly-qualified teacher as well as a bachelor unencumbered with family responsibilities and expenses coincided with a boom in the publication of anthologies

But publishers who catered to aspirational readers like my father with a steady flow of trade anthologies became objects of derision, most notably from Ezra Pound with his loathing of the still-popular Palgrave – “that stinking sugar teat Palgrave.” In 1928 Robert Graves and Laura Riding

Graves and Riding

Graves and Riding

had issued their “Pamphlet Against Anthologies” denouncing as inferior the poems which appeared most frequently in anthologies as examples of literary “depravity” which reduced poetry to an “industrial packet-commodity.” The popularity of such works was, in their view, a clear indicator in itself of fatal aesthetic flaws: “For it can be laid down as a fairly fast rule that any modern piece that has achieved the popularity of Innisfree or Arabia must be functionally half-witted and contain at least one crucial perversion of thought.”

             Contempt for anthologies had spread to lowlier literary gatekeepers by the mid 1930s, so that the Library Review’s “Round Up of Anthologies” deplored, “the vogue of the anthology” as “a depressing symptom of contemporary taste. . . . An anthology is a hold-all, and value-for-money has a sure appeal in times of economic and intellectual bankruptcy.”

My father was unlikely to have ever come across any of these denunciations and regularly added anthologies of various types to his collection. Some of these are remarkable oddities— and even odder in the context of my father’s social and cultural background. One of the strangest was Maurice Baring’s Have You Anything to Declare? A Note Book with Commentaries(1936).  The trope on which the collection and its title are based, Baring claims in his introduction, is a dream in which he is crossing the Styx and is asked by Charon’s Custom House official what “literary baggage” he has to declare, suggesting scornfully, “Small Latin and less Greek?” In response Baring proffers three hundred pages of “odds and ends” garnered from his notebooks or from memory. He provides translations of his chosen fragments of Homer, Virgil and other classical writers, but also includes extensive quotations from Racine and other French writers without translation.

G.K.Chesterton, Baring and Hilaire Belloc, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery)

G.K.Chesterton, Baring and Hilaire Belloc, 1932
(National Portrait Gallery)

Dante, who appears quite frequently, is sometimes translated, sometimes not. Irritatingly, he quotes some forty lines from the final canto of the Paradisio and, instead of providing a translation, offers a section of Chaucer’s Prioress’ Tale which, he claims,  “beautifully imitated” Dante’s lines. It’s hard to imagine what my father would have made of all this. He knew no Italian, had no training in reading Middle English, and did not read Chaucer until Neville Coghill’s Penguin rendering of The Canterbury Tales into modern English appeared in Penguin in 1951. In his case too, Baring’s assumption that his readers would require no translation from French would have been entirely wrong. He might have been reassured by Baring’s prefatory remark that his book was “not meant for scholars nor for the learned, but for those who, like myself, although they have only a smattering of letters, are fond of books and fond of reading.” But the patronizing tone must have been hard to ignore.

Baring, with his Eton and Trinity education and career as diplomat inhabited a social and cultural universe light years away from my father’s local grammar school education and teacher’s certificate. Baring’s collection of “literary baggage” falls below the radar of Graves’ and Riding’s attack on trade anthologies. More commonplace book than anthology, it most resembles the eponymous My Commonplace Book Commonplace Book flyleafby J.T. Hackett which my father shelved next to it. Hackett, an Australian, had assembled a collection of favorite poems, excerpts and quotations in the late nineteenth century and offered it in book form in 1919 with all royalties directed to the Red Cross–a dual rationale which would have appealed to my father. Hackett’s preface disclaims the title of “anthology” and suggests that, instead, a “commonplace book” can serve as “a collection of reminders [for] a young man who cannot afford an extensive library.” He also makes the direct connection between his book and the 1914-18 war, both in designating royalties to the Red Cross and in selecting content to inspire the embattled national spirit.

Hackett’s model, as he acknowledges in his preface, was Robert Bridges’ 1915 anthology, The Spirit of Man.  My father’s copy of Bridges’ collection was the 1937 Longmans edition which retained the original preface urging the necessity of literary guidance in the face of war: ”From the consequent miseries, the insensate and interminable slaughter, the hate and filth, we can turn to seek comfort only in the quiet confidence of our souls; and we look instinctively to the seers and poets of mankind, whose sayings are the oracles and prophecies of loveliness and lovingkindness.”

The collection was organized under broad general themes intended to match “various moods of mind,” a process which Bridges thought could be aided by eliminating authors’ names from the text and sequestering them in the index.

Spirit of Man frontispiece

Spirit of Man frontispiece

Despite an overtly Christian perspective, with section headings such as “Christian Charity,”  “Christian Virtue” and “The Heavenly Kingdom,” the selections are surprisingly ecumenical and wide ranging. Spinoza and Plotinus rub shoulders with the Sufi poet Jelal-ud-Din Rumi, as well as the fifteenth century Kabir, and Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, temporarily very popular in the English-speaking world following his Nobel Prize award in 1913. Around the same time, he bought W.H. Auden and John Garrett’s anthology, The Poet’s Tongue (1935). Like Bridges’ Spirit of Man, Auden and Garrett, wanting to avoid “the bias of great names and literary influences,” stripped authorship from the entries, leaving the reader to discover them by consulting a numbered contents list. While Bridges had organized his selections under themes, Auden and Garrett eschewed any form of categorization, whether by period, genre or subject matter.  Instead, poems were arranged alphabetically by first line. This resulted in some odd juxtapositions, with, for example, the nursery rhyme, “This is the Key to the Kingdom” occurring next to Robert Frost’s winter farewell to his apple trees, “Goodbye and Keep Cold.” The Poet’s Tongue was well-received on publication especially by fellow poets.Poet's Tongue wrapper The young Geoffrey Grigson’s  review in the Morning Post suggested that it deserved as long a life as such standard anthologies as The Golden Treasury or Quiller Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse and “should do more good than any of them.” However, it never rivaled my father’s fondness for Bridges’ Spirit of Man, I think because of that work’s situating itself in the context of World War I, the period of history which had most shaped his psychic life.

During the 1920s  he had purchased each of the volumes of J.C. Squire’s Selections from Modern Poets as they appeared, shelving the bright green volumes  alongside Drinkwater’s Outline of Literature and Orpen’s Outline of Art, thereby according Squire a comparable authority. Squire’s selection of Georgian poets and his rearguard resistance to Modernism matched my father’s own tastes, though he would probably have been less impressed with Squire’s later flirtation with Fascism in the 1930s. Like Frank Swinnerton, Squire was given to proclaiming his contempt for Modernism. In a 1922 essay he described Joyce as “a curious phenomenon” and warned off readers who are “easily disgusted,” concluding that, “It is doubtful if he will make a novelist.” In the same year he wrote off The Waste Land as “a vagrant string of drab pictures.” But Squire was, by then, on the wrong side of literary history. Even in the 1920s Squire’s aesthetics had already been under attack for some years, notably from the Sitwells, whose Wheels anthologies had begun to appear in 1916 and who consistently jeered at the sentimental “nineteenth century hangover” embodied in the “Georgian” poets Squire promoted in his collections.Wheels anthology

My father’s love of anthologies had less to do with their content or their organization than with the way they seemed to offer some sort of authoritative cultural certainty. In a similar way he attached great importance to the title “poet laureate.” In his mind, it enhanced Tennyson’s already pre-eminent status and assured Robert Bridges’ literary reputation, far out-shining Bridges’ more enduring fame as the rescuer of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems from oblivion. My father was either unaware or unconcerned that Britain’s poet laureates had produced much notably bad verse, including laureate Alfred Austin’s lines on the 1896 illness of the Prince of Wales: “Across the wires the electric message came:/’He is no better. He is much the same’ often cited as one of the worst couplets in English verse.Alfred Austin 1900