Showing posts from December, 2012

The Letters of George Gissing

It is not so very hard to write with fair satisfaction about an author known to one only by his work. Criticism may be difficult but at least the issues are not confused by the ten thousand mingled and often contradictory memories of intimate friendship. Writers who are keenly conscious of the value of consistency may preserve it in what they do, for their art is not merely selection from life as they view it, but from their many possible interpretations of it. To talk alone with George Meredith, for instance, was not to talk with the author of "The Egoist," but with some one who could use plain English. When others were present he could seek visibly for phrases. When he wrote he acted and ceased to be himself. So too, Henry James could be as simple in conversation as he was complex in his books. And the better we know any author the better do we know that for all his striving to express himself fully he never does it and never can. It was so with George Gissing, and for tha…

Virginia Woolf: The Decay of Essay Writing

The spread of education and the necessity which haunts us to impart what we have acquired have led, and will lead still further, to some startling results. We read of the over-burdened British Museum--how even its appetite for printed matter flags, and the monster pleads that it can swallow no more. This public crisis has long been familiar in private houses. One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies. Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger--come at all hours of the day and fall in the night, so that the morning breakfast table is fairly snowed up with them. 

This age has painted itself more faithfully than any other in a myriad of clever and conscientious though not supremely great works of fiction; it has tried seriously to liven the faded colours of bygone ages; it has delved industrio…

William Hazlitt: On the difference between writing and speaking

Some minds are proportioned to that which may be dispatched at once, or within a short return of time: others to that which begins afar off, and is to be won with length of pursuit.—-Bacon.It is a common observation, that few persons can be found who speak and write equally well. Not only is it obvious that the two faculties do not always go together in the same proportions: but they are not unusually in direct opposition to each other. We find that the greatest authors often make the worst company in the world; and again, some of the liveliest fellows imaginable in conversation, or extempore speaking, seem to lose all their vivacity and spirit the moment they set pen to paper. For this a greater degree of quickness or slowness of parts, education, habit, temper, turn of mind, and a variety of collateral and predisposing causes are necessary to account. The subject is at least curious, and worthy of an attempt to explain it. I shall endeavor to illustrate the difference by familiar ex…

Sir John Everett Millais: A Jersey Lilly (Lillie Langtry) 1878

Lillie Langtry (her real name was Emile Charlotte) was born on the English Channel island of Jersey, in 1853. The only daughter in a family of six sons, she was raised in the vicarage, for her father was the Dean. She gained an early reputation for beauty, and received her first marriage proposal when she was in her early teens. At 20, she married the plump and pompous Edward Langtry, who turned out to be not quite as wealthy as he pretended.

At Lillie's insistence, the Langtrys moved to London, where she was swept into society and became a Professional Beauty (the term used at the time to describe women whose face and figure brought them fame). Painted by the most famous artists of the day, praised by poet Oscar Wilde as "The Jersey Lily," she inevitably attracted the attention of that notorious connoisseur of women, the Prince of Wales. She was his mistress for three or so years, and although she was also involved with Prince Louis of Battenberg (the likely father of he…

Dorothea Casaubon and George Eliot

CHANCE brought into my hands three years ago Mr. Richard Hutton’s fine volume on the “Leaders of Religious Thought in England”; and I turned with natural interest to the essay on George Eliot, who was so intimately known to me through a long series of years, and to the criticism on “Middlemarch” and its heroine, Dorothea Casaubon. And I reflected that, so far as I knew, nearly all the elaborate criticisms on George Eliot’s work had been written by men. Women seem to have held aloof with a sort of fear from any attempt to measure the achievements of that extraordinary mind; and yet neither her ponderous weight of learning, nor the full flow of her thought, nor the extraordinary wealth of illustration with which she wrought out her meaning should have hindered women from discussing the utterances of one who was in her own person essentially womanly, and who bore down upon the younger members of her own sex with what seemed for a time to be an almost irresistible impact.

There are reasons…

Anthony Powell

Anthony Powell, who has died aged 94, is inevitably regarded as the English Proust, on the strength of the massive novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time - 12 volumes and a million words - that became his central life's work. The Proust impact was more dominant and more obvious than that of other great European novelists and assorted influences from Petronius to modern Americans. Yet he will stand as essentially a comic writer in the English tradition - comic in the least uproarious way imaginable, reflective and often melancholic, the strong social spine to his work being the one distinctively uncommon feature in a branch of writing remarkable more for eccentricity than togetherness.

In fact, Powell has a measure of both. He goes in for no deep psychological dredging, yet his novels rest on a firmer base of instinct and belief than is usual among the English comedians. He is fascinated by the play of time and chance on character, and it is by no means time and chance that alw…

Zadie Smith: Joy

It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It was the same even in childhood when most people are miserable. I don’t think this is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way. I seem to get more than the ordinary satisfaction out of food,…

Angels to Radios: On Rainer Maria Rilke

It is said that the tradition of English poetry began with Caedmon--an illiterate seventh-century lay brother who, ashamed of his inability to versify when the harp was passed around at a feast, fell asleep in his stable among the animals and dreamed of an angel. This angel, too, bade him sing, and again Caedmon protested that he did not know any songs; but then, inexplicably, he found himself obeying the angel's dictum: "Sing the beginning of the creatures!" Immediately on waking he wrote down the eulogy to the world and its maker that had been transmitted to him in his dream; today the nine-line Anglo-Saxon "Caedmon's Hymn" is the earliest known English poem--a product of what poets now often call "dictation." The gods (or God), the muses (or the Muse); afflatus, ecstasy, poetic madness: the lore of poetry worldwide attests to the claim that poetry at its best emerges from somewhere "other"--a source beyond the poet's ego and consc…

Ruskin, Wilde, Satire, and the Birth of Aestheticism

"In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential." -Oscar Wilde, in The Chameleon 
Looking past the often hyperbolic and flippant tone of Oscar Wilde's aesthetic theories in "The Decay of Lying" (text), one finds that many of them copy or closely resemble those of John Ruskin. This similarity presents a peculiar challenge: how could Ruskin, so closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and concerned with society's relation to art, influence an aesthetic movement that attempted to divorce art from anything but itself? Looking purely at the content of Wilde's aesthetic theories, one cannot find any practical departure from Ruskin. But if one measures Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" by its form and technique, Wilde indeed presents a "new aestheticism": the virtue of his wit and style trump concerns over the originality of his ideas. Examining Ruskin, W…

Alexander Pope: Ode on Solitude


How happy he, who free from care
The rage of courts, and noise of towns;
Contented breaths his native air,
In his own grounds.


Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.


Blest! who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide swift away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,


Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix'd; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.


Thus let me live, unheard, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.


Josef Lada's paintings an enduring symbol of Czech Christmas

For many readers around the world, Josef Lada's illustrations of the Good Soldier Svejk are inextricably linked to the famous character created by Jaroslav Hasek. But Josef Lada did far more than illustrate Hasek's novel, and his idealized paintings of carol singers and family gatherings are for many in this country an enduring symbol of Czech Christmas.

Josef Lada was born just outside Prague in 1887, in the tiny village of Hrusice. His father was a cobbler and the family were poor, and little Josef lost an eye when he fell out of his cradle and landed on one of his father's knives. But Lada seems to have had a happy childhood, and loved Christmas. Years later he recalled with relish the traditional foods his family prepared, and said he loved their small and modestly decorated Christmas trees more than wealthier boys whose trees reached the ceiling. Josef Lada was sent to Prague to be an apprentice, but art was his passion, and he was paid the princely sum of 20 crowns wh…

Georg Lukacs: The Theory of the Novel - Integrated Civilisations

HAPPY ARE those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths — ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light. Thus each action of the soul becomes meaningful and rounded in this duality: complete in meaning — in sense — and complete for the senses; rounded because the soul rests within itself even while it acts; rounded because its action separates itself from it and, having become itself, finds a centre of its own and draws a closed circumference round itself. ‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’


George Santayana: I would I might Forget that I am I

I would I might forget that I am I,
And break the heavy chain that binds me fast,
Whose links about myself my deeds have cast.
What in the body’s tomb doth buried lie
Is boundless; ’tis the spirit of the sky,
Lord of the future, guardian of the past,
And soon must forth, to know his own at last.
In his large life to live, I fain would die.
Happy the dumb beast, hungering for food,
But calling not his suffering his own;
Blessèd the angel, gazing on all good,
But knowing not he sits upon a throne;
Wretched the mortal, pondering his mood,
And doomed to know his aching heart alone.

Rereading: George Eliot's Mill on the Floss

On 5 March 1860, the scientist and journalist GH Lewes reported to the publisher John Blackwood that "Mrs Lewes is getting her eyes redder and swollener every morning as she lives through her tragic story. But there is such a strain of poetry to relieve the tragedy that the more she cries, and the readers cry, the better say I." "Mrs Lewes" was, of course, George Eliot, and "the tragic story" on which she was working so damply was The Mill on the Floss, published by Blackwood 150 years ago next week. What was making Eliot cry was having to write the last few pages of her novel in which the heroine Maggie Tulliver and her estranged brother Tom drown in the swollen River Floss, locked together "in an embrace never to be parted". More than mere melodrama, the watery hug represented a wishful reworking of Eliot's fractured relationship with her own adored brother, with whom she had grown up on the Warwickshire family farm in the 1820s. Ever since …

Leszek Kołakowski: Is God Happy?

The first biography of Siddhartha, the future Buddha, reveals that for a long time he was entirely unaware of the wretchedness of the human condition. A royal son, he spent his youth in pleasure and luxury, surrounded by music and worldly delights. He was already married by the time the gods decided to enlighten him. One day he saw a decrepit old man; then the suffering of a very sick man; then a corpse. It was only then that the existence of old age, suffering, and death—all the painful aspects of life to which he had been oblivious—was brought home to him. Upon seeing them he decided to withdraw from the world to become a monk and seek the path to Nirvana.

We may suppose, then, that he was happy as long as the grim realities of life were unknown to him; and that at the end of his life, after a long and arduous journey, he attained the genuine happiness that lies beyond the earthly condition.

Can Nirvana be described as a state of happiness? Those who, like the present author, cannot r…

Roger Fry: Landscape at Asheham

Roger Eliot Fry was born in 1866 in Highgate, London, into a wealthy Quaker family. While studying for a Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge, Fry's interest in art was encouraged by the Slade Professor J.H. Middleton and, much to his family's regret, he decided after university to pursue an artistic career rather than continue his scientific studies.

Although Fy's chosen career as an artist and critic was a success, his personal life was troubled. His wife, the artist Helen Coombe, whom he married in 1896, suffered from mental illness and had to be committed to an institution in 1910, leaving Fry to look after their children Pamela and Julian.

His affair with Vanessa Bell, which began in 1911 when Fry accompanied the Bells on a holiday to Turkey, ended when she transferred her affections to Duncan Grant in 1913. Fry was heartbroken. In a letter written four years later, his feelings for Vanessa are still very evident:
Don't forget my dear that I am getting a rather bad…

Heinrich Heine: This Mad Carnival of Loving

THIS mad carnival of loving,
This wild orgy of the flesh,
Ends at last and we two, sobered,
Look at one another, yawning.

Emptied the inflaming cup
That was filled with sensuous potions,
Foaming, almost running over--
Emptied is the flaming cup.

All the violins are silent
That impelled our feet to dancing,
To the giddy dance of passion--
Silent are the violins.

All the lanterns now are darkened
That once poured their streaming brilliance
On the masquerades and murmurs--
Darkened now are all the lanterns.

Letters reveal Flaubert's English 'amitié amoureuse'

A trove of letters from Gustave Flaubert discovered in the attic of a Home Counties farmhouse reveals a softer side to the famously cynical author of Madame Bovary.

The letters, written to English society hostess Gertrude Tennant, were discovered by author and biographer David Waller after he was invited to look at two chests of family papers in a house off the A3. "They hadn't been opened for the last 50 years," he said. "It was quite an amazing experience. I delved in and found a package labelled 'letters from distinguished persons: do not throw away'."

The package contained correspondence from Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Gladstone and Victor Hugo, as well as a bundle of 24 letters from Flaubert, including around a dozen which had never before been seen.

Tennant, then Gertrude Collier, met Flaubert as a 22-year-old on holiday with her family in 1842 in Trouville. "He had the charm of the utter unconsciousness of his physical and mental beauty," w…