Sunday, January 17, 2021

'To Pass Before the Bar of the Classics'

It’s a  shame but Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) may be best remembered for the sniffy essay Virginia Woolf aimed at him in 1924. Some of us would happily reread The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), Clayhanger (1910) or Riceyman Steps (1923) before enduring Woolf’s self-absorption and snobbery all over again. 

The other night I reread Bennett’s brief and charming variation on the how-to manual, Literary Taste: How to Form It. First published in 1909 by Hodder and Stoughton, the library copy I have is the seventh edition, from 1914. Bennett even devotes three chapters to what be calls “An English Library.” He breaks down English literary history into three epochs, lists the essential books from each and includes their prices. For the prose writers from the first period – no Burton, but including Bede, Browne, Bunyan, et al. – he estimates the cost at £216 (one pound in 1910 translates into roughly £115 today, or about $292). I find Bennett’s accountant’s approach to amassing a personal library refreshing.


Bennett’s prose style in his novels hovers somewhere between Henry James’ and Theodore Dreiser’s, but closer to Dreiser’s. He seldom dazzles but he’s good with detail. Like any competent realist, he pays attention, sees things and reports them to the  reader. Few will read his novels for the glories of their prose, yet in Literary Taste he emphasizes the importance of style: “You will find that, in classical [sic] literature, the style always follows the mood of the matter.” His example is Charles Lamb’s “Dream Children: A Reverie,” which he gives a close reading. In Chap. VII, “Wrestling With an Author,” Bennett offers wise, pragmatic suggestions to readers, especially young people, whose tastes are bookish but who are intimidated by critics, teachers and the sheer gross tonnage of books:


“In the preliminary stages of literary culture, nothing is more helpful, in the way of kindling an interest and keeping it well alight, than to specialise for a time on one author, and particularly on an author so frankly and curiously ‘human’ as Lamb is. I do not mean that you should imprison yourself with Lamb's complete works for three months, and read nothing else. I mean that you should regularly devote a proportion of your learned leisure to the study of Lamb until you are acquainted with all that is important in his work and about his work.”


This is not advice I ever followed but it’s rooted in solid good sense. Lamb is an ideal choice of a writer for novice readers because of his centrality to and difference from the High Romantics, mostly poets. Among his intimates were Coleridge, Hazlitt and Wordsworth. One could devote a lifetime to reading and studying their overlapping circles of acquaintance, and following the leads they offer, and acquire a first-rate education. Bennett is an encouraging booster of literary amateurism in the etymological sense:


“There is no reason why you should not become a modest specialist in Lamb. He is the very man for you; neither voluminous, nor difficult, nor uncomfortably lofty; always either amusing or touching; and—most important—himself passionately addicted to literature. You cannot like Lamb without liking literature in general. And you cannot read Lamb without learning about literature in general; for books were his hobby, and he was a critic of the first rank. His letters are full of literariness. You will naturally read his letters; you should not only be infinitely diverted by them (there are no better epistles), but you should receive from them much light on the works.”


We could use more teachers of literature like Bennett and fewer like Woolf. He is at once commonsensical and demanding: “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.”


Richard Zuelch said...

Thanks for giving me a push. I now plan to start reading Lamb's letters tomorrow. I have a two-volume set published by Macmillan in 1888 (in a 2nd edition published in 1904; edited by Alfred Ainger).

I should probably check out Arnold Bennett, as well.

Faze said...

Looking for something new to read one day, I pulled "Old Wives Tale" off a shelf almost at random, and was startled at how good it was. Bennet is a skilled carpenter of characters and places. He builds a world.