« PreviousContinue »
be expected to be less sage and more unconsciously experimental. But did the dramatic critics make it clear to their readers that there was any difference in the five plays they condemned so wholeheartedly? They did not. They left their readers to infer that all were of a piece, and unspeakably bad at that. The same critics, immediately afterward going to a musical comedy the libretto of which escaped by a hairbreadth the customary banality of musical comedies, proclaimed that this musical comedy was the gem of the season. They enthusiastically commended it to the same readers who had been told how bad the five plays were.
I need not draw a moral. This kind of criticism is rampant in all the arts. Mediocre, conventional works are given easy praise; and works of greater ambitiousness are scrutinized almost destructively. They never receive such high praise as the conventional works. It is difficult to praise highly where the judgment has been severely tested. The temptation to qualify, to play for safety, to weigh the word of praise, is very great. For immaturity, imbecility, and incompetence, the critic has toleration. His line is that the book or play or picture which he himself despises as inane is just the kind of thing that many people will like. To condemn it will be to mark himself a highbrow. To praise it-ah, well, it would be cruel to destroy such work; and nobody will tax him with his indulgence, because all other critics and readers (apart from the very young and iconoclastic) have similar weakness for the puerile. And since the young and iconoclastic despise all that has not been written by their friends, he need not trouble about their judgment of his own work. Accordingly the critic slops about in the slough
of his own vague standards, and thus all that he does is vitiated by timidity, uncertainty, kindness, the sense that established authors will not suffer by his dispraise; and the criticism of books and plays remains as unsatisfactory as ever. On the one hand there is a tendency to give easy praise to work that is third rate. On the other hand there is fear of being the first to dash out with the discovery — which may be laughed at of something first rate. I do not know whether, for the sake of my argument, I may be allowed a third hand, but if so I should say that on the third hand there is the inability to discriminate between what is incompetent and what is original. To me, as I have so often said here, the only quality that matters in any work of art is its originality. I care nothing for form or for any of the rules of the non-creative, so long as the work seems to my judgment to be that of a person who thinks and feels entirely for himself. But for most professional critics originality is nothing at all. They constantly praise unoriginal work because it is neat, or because it conforms to their own notions of what is praiseworthy. Or rather, not their own notions so much as the notions in vogue among their friends. As a result, much good work is praised or dispraised in precisely the terms ordinarily applied to mediocre work or even inept work in the same field.
Take the case of "The Constant Nymph". Nymph". In my opinion this novel is the most distinguished novel written by a woman for many years. It seems to me to indicate the arising of a new talent. Shortcomings it may have, but it is original and it is imaginative. But was the press reception of this book uproarious? It was not. Praise the book had, indeed, but stereotyped praise. There was nothing in the
praise given by the press to indicate that Miss Kennedy was outside the run of conventional talents. She had not had a clique behind her, and took her chance with the "also ran" novelists who are responsible for "the stream of trashy novels constantly poured forth by the press". Except that "The Constant Nymph" was celebrated by one or two octogenarians who have no skill as novel reviewers, it might have been a new novel by any one of two or three hundred mediocre writers.
I think there really is something wrong about this. It is well known that talk and talk only makes reputation and circulation for novels, and this talk has been accorded "The Constant Nymph" and its author; but it should not be so. The press critics fail in their duty to humankind. It is their business to create such esteem for their judgment that readers will look to them for advice. They neglect their business. Criticism in the press is really negligible, largely, I think, because it is so usually perfunctory. But it is also negligible because it is incompetent. Critics should have at least the wit to indicate whether they are judging work by the standards of first, second, or fifteenth class literature. They cannot do this because they have no standards. They go to the theatre or they pick up a book, full of prejudice against or in favor of the author they are to criticize, and they are bored before they begin to assess values. They do not yield themselves to the work they are examining, but stand frowning or smiling upon it because of some quite extraneous reason. If they can get through it without mental effort they praise it; if they can do nothing of this kind they bring out their soiled and overworked adjectives and sprinkle them like pepper upon pieces of préciswriting which schoolboys would reject
in disgust, as unlikely to pass their form masters.
A couple of months ago I said in these pages that the most popular literary discovery anybody could make nowadays would probably be a new novel by Jane Austen. As if in answer to my wish, there has been published here, and I suppose in America also, the fragment of what is practically a new novel by Jane Austen. When Miss Austen's nephew, J. E. Austen Leigh, gave to the world "Lady Susan" and the unfinished story of "The Watsons", he said of the present fragment that it could not "be presented to the public", and he merely gave a sketch of its contents, with tantalizing extracts from the work itself. Present day interest in Jane Austen has brought about a change in the attitude of those in possesion of her manuscripts. A little while ago we had some juvenilia, collected under the title of "Love and Freindship" (it is strange to notice from the new fragment, which is printed exactly as it was written, that Miss Austen always spelled wrongly any words containing the letters "ie" in juxtaposition); and now we have "Sanditon". I should like to say at once that to me this fragment is not in the smallest degree a disappointment. The old touch is to be perceived in every line. If anything, Miss Austen would seem to be more caustic than before. She sketches quite a number of people, and as far as the book takes us into their characters she makes fun of most of these. The hero, unfortunately (for I take it that he is the hero), makes no more than a passing appearance at the end of the fragment; but we have a glimpse of his character from the comments of his relatives. He is a funmaker of the kind near Miss Austen's heart. The heroine is perceptive and
realistic. She has not, in the chapters written, much more character than that. But she promises well. She promises so well that I believe we might have had a good comedy from her relations with the humorous and humbug ridiculing hero. Of course it is difficult to tell when so little is available, but the book promises so delightfully that I found myself gnashing my teeth when I came to the end of the text. The editors give some invaluable notes of variant readings which the Austen lover will be able to study with much profit. Here are grouped the phrases which she struck out while she wrote, or afterward. They should give real insight into the working of her mind. I have not yet been able to examine them in detail, or to read the story more than once, and I assume that no unfinished tale can ever be so warm a favorite as one that is all before us. Nevertheless, there is matter here which is of great and mature excellence. It is particularly interesting as showing how Miss Austen as she grew older was becoming more reflective. I think the book does take us further along that line than "Persuasion", which, though I love "Pride and Prejudice" better than any other of her books, I consider the most beautiful of them all. There is no beauty (other than incidental beauty) in the fragment of "Sanditon", but there might well have been much of it as the story opened before our eyes. There is not the radiance of Miss Austen's early work, and there is even an additional pungency to the satire; yet there is a delicacy and sureness unsurpassed in any other of her works. This is an impression after one reading. Already "Sanditon" is more attractive than either "Lady Susan" or "The Watsons". There are some Austenites who feel great dislike of "Lady Susan"
even contempt for it. I am not of
their number, but the prospects before the modern reader of "The Watsons" are certainly less enticing to the imagination than are the prospects before the same reader of "Sanditon". I find myself already a "Sanditonian", and I believe that no reader who can bear to read a fragment at all should or indeed can afford to miss this latest Austen treasure.
It will be remembered that "The Adelphi" started under very favorable auspices in the Summer of 1923. It had good will behind it and about it, and the reception given to the early numbers showed clearly how cordial a public there is in England for a periodical which shall rise above the level of the ordinary English magazine. An enormous circulation "The Adelphi" never had, of course, but it was for its class of paper a respectable and encouraging circulation. Now, after about twenty months of life, "The Adelphi" is appealing for subscribers. Middleton Murry, the editor, explains that unless there is a solid body of people who will undertake to support him by definite subscriptions the magazine will have to cease publication. The reasons for this change of situation on the part of "The Adelphi" are several, chief among them being possibly that Mr. Murry has quite honestly and intelligibly departed from the position he adopted when the paper was started. That is, "The Adelphi", which began as a sort of intellectual commonwealth, has become an autocracy. It has latterly been more and more a vehicle for Mr. Murry's own views, and less of a vehicle for the talents of Mr. Murry's first coadjutors. Even so, I do not think that there would be any question about "The Adelphi's" continuance if Mr. Murry
were really bent upon using the journal effectively as a vehicle; but as to this there may be other opinions. "The Adelphi" is to die unless its circulation is definitely guaranteed. Meanwhile, Meanwhile, a new monthly upon somewhat similar lines to the original "Adelphi" has just been started under the title of "The Calendar of Modern Letters". This periodical, of which the first number has just reached me, is edited by a young poet and critic named Edgell Rickword, whose work has appeared in "The London Mercury"; and it contains contributions by D. H. Lawrence, who seems essential to any contemporary non-commercial venture, Siegfried Sassoon, A. E. Coppard, Robert Graves, the editor, and others. At glimpse, "The Calendar" is not overwhelmingly novel, but it has interesting items, and should be a good investment if it keeps its word as to the character of its contributions. It is very desirable indeed that there should be a monthly journal in which the work of young talents can appear. We have, indeed, "The London Mercury", but that monthly is not run especially for the young. Hence, no doubt, the occasion of the new monthly. I hope "The Calendar" will discover some noteworthy new writers. I am sorry to see in its pages the names of so many older men, or of men whose talent is fixed, although I can appreciate the reasons for their presence. What chiefly I regret is that the first number does not contain any "creative" work by a young and unestablished writer. We want this "creative" work more than any criticism. Probably Mr. Rickword will presently attract to his venture some fresh stars. If he can do this he will have performed a great service to his generation. It is the regrettable feature of so much young talent that it runs to criticism of others
sometimes to very adverse criticism - without, so to speak, showing its own hand. "The Calendar" will doubtless indeed, it must shortly show its hand. I can therefore do no more at present than salute the confidence which has led to its establishment. I could wish that the format were more distinguished. The type used is not more than commonplace, and its arrangement is uninspired. The best thing about the format of the first number is the cover, which is printed in a good blue. While I am on the subject of "The Calendar" I may perhaps. mention that another monthly will presently be published along lines not altogether dissimilar. I hope the two ventures will not clash. It would be a pity. I expect the other venture, a title for which has not yet been found, will run upon rather broader lines than "The Calendar". It will make its first appearance in September. I shall give fuller particulars at a later date.
I mentioned a page or so earlier that the critic's vocabulary was a little restricted. It may be retorted upon me that unless large numbers of new words are constantly added to the English language, some such repetition of well used adjectives is forced upon any rapid writer. rapid writer. It is certainly hard to avoid cliché, and if once one begins to look for cliché in one's own work one will soon feel despair at the stereotyped phrases to be found in every sentence. I suppose that I use as many clichés as anybody, but if I do so it is done unconsciously. The same may be said of most writers. The other day I heard three very experienced writers accusing each other sternly of the bad habit and at the same time denying the charges brought against themselves. I could not defend myself in this way, because
it is impossible to judge the quality of one's own writing. Some words have a way of getting overworked, and these words I should naturally avoid if they came into my head; but I remember making fun of a friend of mine who twice in one book used the phrase "understanded of the people". My My friend asked why I objected to it. I said, "Because it's such beastly cliché." Whereupon he said, with great simplicity: "Is it? I only know of it in the Prayer Book." This shows how one man's cliché is another man's golden ore. The word "drastic" is one word that I should avoid. It seems to me detestable. Writers of football reports in England often use the word convincing" in a horrible way. They say, "Bonsham gave a convincing display", or refer to "Twonjett's convincing form", and so on. Reviewers are fond of the word "stark". One sees "flesh and blood", "cover to cover", "admirable", "charming", and so on. I believe we all use the more common commendatory adjectives. In themselves they are not clichés, but they become so when they are used with any strain. This is perhaps the real sign of a cliché, that it is used slightly out of its meaning, or with exaggerated emphasis, or as an evasion. We all laugh at the clichés of the house agent his "commodious", etc., but we hardly recognize that he is faced with the need of expressing himself through a convention. The house agent's "charming Old World cottage", "commodious mansion", "dwelling house, situate", etc., etc., are all perfectly intelligible to any person who has ever hunted a house. Business men resemble the house agent. They and he are all driven into cliché because they dare not use the common word, or dare not repeat the same word twice in a sentence. They are hampered by their
respect for the English language. There is no gusto in their style. Their vocabulary is limited: it is banal but its phrases are less clichés than conventions. Conventionality could not be brought as a charge against nurserymen. I need not refer to the Dutch bulb grower, who gets some of his effects by way of Babu English. I am thinking rather of our own, home grown nurserymen. I have now before me a catalogue, illustrated with highly colored pictures of all sorts of magnificent flowers in gardeners' language, "showy plants" and I am struck with admiration, not of the highly colored pictures, but of the highly colored language in which the plants are commended by the nurseryman himself. Here is an example:
Next to the Rose, there is nothing that can equal the Pæony for regal splendour. It is a luxurious flower, putting one in mind of quantities of velvety rose petals brought together to form a single majestic bloom. Folk who grow a few old-fashioned Pæonies - huge bushes occupying several square yards of ground, which seldom produce more than two or three second or third-rate flowers have simply no idea what our Pæonies, which have been selected from the finest varieties in the world, are like. delicious fragrance of these Pæonies, together with their splendid form and colour, make them absolutely irresistible.
I quote it to show the freedom of the author's style. I proceed:
SEDUM, “STONECROP". When God made the deserts, He made the Stonecrops. They haven't got a hump like a camel, but they are protected by Nature with the means of sustaining life on short rations of water, even during long periods of drought. They are therefore well adapted for the dry places "where nothing will grow". Have you an ugly wall, or a wall which is simply bare without being ugly, a dry bank or a ledge on the rockery which you regard as a death-trap for all plant life? Then try the Stonecrops. They will thrive and thank
Here the gardener has touched a deeper note, indeed. He is subtle. He ap