Books and Persons

By Arnold Bennett, 1917
Books and Persons


"Books and Persons" is a collection of essays and book reviews by English writer Arnold Bennett. The book was first published in 1917 and covers a wide range of topics, including the nature of artistic creation, the value of reading, and the importance of a life well-lived. Bennett's writing style is conversational and accessible, and he offers a unique perspective on the role of literature and its impact on society. He also reflects on his own experiences as a writer and provides insight into the creative process. "Books and Persons" is a fascinating read for anyone interested in literature, philosophy, and the power of words.

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4 Apr. '08

An important book on an important town is to be issued by Messrs. Methuen. The town is London, and the author Mr. Wilfred Whitten, known to journalism as John o' London. Considering that he comes from Newcastle-on-Tyne (or thereabouts), his pseudonym seems to stretch a point. However, Mr. Whitten is now acknowledged as one of the foremost experts in London topography. He is not an archæologist, he is a humanist—in a good dry sense; not the University sense, nor the silly sense. The word "human" is a dangerous word; I am rather inclined to handle it with antiseptic precautions. When a critic who has risen high enough to be allowed to sign his reviews in a daily paper calls a new book "a great human novel," you may be absolutely sure that the said novel consists chiefly of ridiculous twaddle. Mr. Whitten is not a humanist in that sense. He has no sentimentality, and a very great deal of both wit and humour.

He is also a critic admirably sane. Not long ago he gave a highly diverting exhibition of sanity in a short, shattering pronouncement upon the works of Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson and the school which has acquired celebrity by holding the mirror up to its own nature. The wonder was that Mr. Benson did not, following his precedent, write to the papers to say that Mr. Whitten was no gentleman. In the days before the Academy blended the characteristics of a comic paper with those of a journal of dogmatic theology, before it took to disowning its own reviewers, Mr. Whitten was the solid foundation of that paper's staff. He furnished the substance, which was embroidered by the dark grace of the personality of Mr. Lewis Hind, whose new volume of divagations is, by the way, just out.

But my main object in referring to Mr. Whitten is to state formally, and with a due sense of responsibility, that he is one of the finest prose writers now writing in English. His name is on the title-pages of several books, but no book of his will yet bear out my statement. The proof of it lies in weekly papers. No living Englishman can do "the grand manner"—combining majestic dignity with a genuine lyrical inspiration—better than Mr. Whitten. These are proud words of mine, but I am not going to disguise my conviction that I know what I am talking about. Some day some publisher will wake up out of the coma in which publishers exist, and publish in volume form—probably with coloured pictures as jam for children—Mr. Whitten's descriptions of English towns. Then I shall be justified. I might have waited till that august moment. But I want to be beforehand with Dr. Robertson Nicoll. I see that Dr. Nicoll has just added to his list of patents by inventing Leonard Merrick, whom I used to admire in print long before Dr. Nicoll had ever heard that Mr. J.M. Barrie regarded Leonard Merrick as the foremost English novelist. Dr. Nicoll has already got Mr. Whitten on to the reviewing staff of the Bookman. But I am determined that he shall not invent Mr. Whitten's prose style. I am the inventor of that.

2 May '08

A few weeks ago I claimed to be the discoverer of Mr. Wilfred Whitten as a first-class prose writer. I relinquish the claim, with apologies. Messrs. Methuen have staggered me by sending me Mrs. Laurence Binyon's "Nineteenth Century Prose," in which anthology is an example of Mr. Whitten's prose. Though staggered, I was delighted. I should very much like to know how Mrs. Binyon encountered the prose of Mr. Whitten. Did she hunt through the files of newspapers for what she might find therein, and was she thus rewarded? Or did some tremendous and omniscient expert give her the tip? I disagree with about 85 per cent. of the obiter dicta of her preface, but her anthology is certainly a most agreeable compilation. It shows, like sundry other recent anthologies, the strong liberating influence of Mr. E.V. Lucas, whose "Open Road" really amounted to a renascence of the craft.

And here is the tail-end of the extract which Mrs. Binyon has perfectly chosen from the essays of Mr. Whitten:

"...The moon pushing her way upwards through the vapours, and the scent of the beans and kitchen stuff from the allotments, and the gleaming rails below, spoke of the resumption of daily burdens. But let us drop that jargon. Why call that a burden which can never be lifted? This calm necessity that dwells with the matured man to get back to the matter in hand, and dree his weird whatever befall, is a badge, not a burden. It is the stimulus of sound natures; and as the weight of his wife's arm makes a man's body proud, so the sense of his usefulness to the world does but warm and indurate his soul. It is something when a man comes to this mind, and with all his capacity to err, is abreast of life at last. He shall not regret the infrequency of his inspirations, for he will know that the day of his strength has set in. And if, for poesy, some grave Virgilian line should pause on his memory, or some tongue of Hebrew fire leap from the ashes of his godly youth, it will be enough. But if cold duck await—why, then, to supper!"



9 May '08

In the Edinburgh Review there is a disquisition on "Ugliness in Fiction." Probably the author of it has read "Liza of Lambeth," and said Faugh! The article, peculiarly inept, is one of those outpourings which every generation of artists has to suffer with what tranquillity it can. According to the Reviewer, ugliness is specially rife "just now." It is always "just now." It was "just now" when George Eliot wrote "Adam Bede," when George Moore wrote "A Mummer's Wife," when Thomas Hardy wrote "Jude the Obscure." As sure as ever a novelist endeavours to paint a complete picture of life in this honest, hypocritical country of bad restaurants and good women; as sure as ever he hints that all is not for the best in the best of all possible islands, some witling is bound to come forward and point out with wise finger that life is not all black. I once resided near a young noodle of a Methodist pastor who had the pious habit of reading novels aloud to his father and mother. He began to read one of mine to them, but half-way through decided that something of Charlotte M. Yonge would be less unsuitable for the parental ear. He then called and lectured me. Among other aphorisms of his which I have treasured up was this: "Life, my dear friend, is like an April day—sunshine and shadow chasing each other over the plain." That he is not dead is a great tribute to my singular self-control. I suspect him to be the Edinburgh Reviewer. At any rate, the article moves on the plane of his plain.

The Reviewer has the strange effrontery to select Mr. Joseph Conrad's "Secret Agent" as an example of modern ugliness in fiction: a novel that is simply steeped in the finest beauty from end to end. I do not suppose that the Edinburgh Review has any moulding influence upon the evolution of the art of fiction in this country. But such nonsense may, after all, do harm by confusing the minds of people who really are anxious to encourage what is best, strongest, and most sane. The Reviewer in this instance, for example, classes, as serious, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, and John Galsworthy, who are genuine creative forces, with mere dignified unimportant sentimentalizers like Mr. W.B. Maxwell. While he was on the business of sifting the serious from the unserious I wonder he didn't include the authors of "Three Weeks" and "The Heart of a Child" among the serious! Perhaps because the latter wrote "Pigs in Clover" and the former was condemned by the booksellers! Nobody could have a lower opinion of "Three Weeks" than I have. But I have never been able to understand why the poor little feeble story was singled out as an awful example of female licentiousness, and condemned by a hundred newspapers that had not the courage to name it. The thing was merely infantile and absurd. Moreover, I violently object to booksellers sitting in judgment on novels.


16 May '08

The result of Murray v. The Times is very amusing. I don't know why the fact that the Times is called upon to pay £7500 to Mr. John Murray should make me laugh joyously; but it does. Certainly the reason is not that I sympathize with the libelled Mr. Murray. The action was a great and a wonderful action, full of enigmas for a mere man of letters like myself. For example, Mr. Murray said that his agreement with the "authors" (I cannot imagine how Lord Esher and Mr. A.C. Benson came to be the "authors" of the late Queen's correspondence) stipulated that two-thirds of the profits should go to the "authors" and one-third to Mr. Murray. Secondly, Mr. Murray said that he paid the authors £5592 14s. 2d. Thirdly, he said that his own profit was £600. Hence £600 is the half of £5592 14s. 2d. I have no doubt that there exists some quite simple explanation of this new arithmetic; only it has not occurred to me, my name not being Colenso. The whole enterprise was regal, as befitted. Proof-corrections cost twice as much as the original setting up! A mere man of letters would be inclined to suspect that the printing was begun too soon; it is usual to postpone setting-up a book until the book is written. Balzac partially beggared himself by ignoring this rule. Balzac, however, was not published by Mr. Murray. £950 was paid to the amanuensis! Oh, amanuensis, how I wonder who you are, up above the world so high, like a fashionable novelist in the sky! And so on.

The attitude of Tunbridge Wells (the most plutocratic town in England, by the way) towards the book was adorable. "Mr. Daniel Williams, a bookseller and librarian, of Tunbridge Wells, said that after the review by 'Artifex' people complained that the price of the book was too high. No complaints were made before that." They read their Times Literary Supplement at the Wells, and they still wait for it to thunder, and when it has thundered—and not before—they rattle their tea-trays, and the sequel is red ruin! Again, Mr. Justice Darling, in his ineptly decorated summing-up, observed that it was hardly too much to say that "the plaintiff's house—the house of Murray," was a national institution. It would be hardly too much to say that also the house of Crosse and Blackwell is a national institution, and that Mr. Justice Darling is a national institution. By all means let us count the brothers Murray as a national institution, even as an Imperial institution. But let us guard against the notion, everywhere cropping up, that such "houses" as the dignified and wealthy house of Murray are in some mysterious way responsible for English literature, part-authors of English literature, to whom half of the glory of English literature is due. It is well to remember now and then that publishers who have quite squarely made vast sums out of selling the work of creative artists are not thereby creative artists themselves. A publisher is a tradesman; infinitely less an artist than a tailor is an artist. Often a publisher knows what the public will buy in literature. Very rarely he knows what is good literature. Scarcely ever will he issue a distinguished book exclusively because it is a distinguished book. And he is right, for he is only a tradesman. But to judge from the otiose majesty of some publishers, one would imagine that they had written at least "Childe Harold." There is the case of a living publisher (not either of the brothers Murray) whose presence at his country chateau is indicated to the surrounding nobility, gentry, and peasantry by the unfurling of the Royal standard over a turret.

To return to the subject, the price at which the house of Murray issued the "Letters of Queen Victoria" was not "extortionate," having regard to the astounding expenses of publication. But why were the expenses so astounding? If the book had not been one which by its intrinsic interest compelled purchase, would the "authors" have been remunerated like the managers of a steel trust? Would the paper have been so precious and costly? Would the illustrations have so enriched photographers? And would the amanuensis have made £350 more out of the thing then Mr. Murray himself? The price was not extortionate. But it was farcical. The entire rigmarole combines to throw into dazzling prominence the fact that modern literature in this country is still absolutely undemocratic. The time will come, and much sooner than many august mandarins anticipate, when such a book as the "Letters of Queen Victoria" will be issued at six shillings, and newspapers will be fined £7500 for saying that the price is extortionate and ought not to exceed half a crown. Assuredly there is no commercial reason why the book should not have been published at 6s. or thereabouts. Only mandarinism prevented that. Mr. Murray's profits would have been greater, though "authors," amanuenses, photographers, paper-makers, West-End booksellers, and other parasitic artisans might have suffered slightly.