23 April 2009

Chapter 1:

[John Masefield (1948)]

The Novel in 1908

(i) The Edwardian Context

Strictly speaking, the Edwardian age should be held to have begun in January 1901, when Queen Victoria died; and to have ended with the death of King Edward the Seventh, on the 6th of May, 1910. In terms of literature, however, when the writers who came to prominence or 'added to their reputations' (Larkin, 1974, p.v) during this time are being discussed, one is surely justified in setting slightly wider boundaries. The end of this larger period is fairly clearly demarcated by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914; and, while the beginning could be set at almost any point during the 1890's, 1897 – when Hardy's last published novel, The Well-Beloved, appeared – seems to mark, at any rate, a possible end for the former Victorian era.

What, then, were the general characteristics of the literature of this greater Edwardian period? Almost any immediate single statement would have to be subject to qualification, but it does seem distinguished from that which had gone before by, at least, a greater cosmopolitanism – a more ready recognition of the world outside the narrow field of English letters. Foreign influences, for almost the first time, became central rather than peripheral to English literature. Constance Garnett's translations of the great Russians - Turgenev (1894-99), Dostoyevsky (1912-20), and Chekhov (1916-23) (Heilbrun, 1961, pp.207-8) - were as essential to comprehension of the age as the novels of Arnold Bennett or H. G. Wells.

One could almost rank these foreign influences in order, thus:

The Irish, or Celtic school. It was certainly nothing new for Ireland to have a decisive effect on English literature (as the names of Swift, Berkeley, Sheridan, and Thomas Moore should testify), but perhaps it was never so great as at this time. George Bernard Shaw (Three Plays for Puritans (1901), Man and Superman (1903)), and John Synge (The Playboy of the Western World (1907)), were reforming the theatre (in their very different ways); the dominance of W. B. Yeats in poetry was becoming more and more indisputable (In the Seven Woods (1903), The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910)) as he showed himself less and less a mere relic of the nineties; and there were numerous secondary figures all loosely grouped around him – AE, Lady Gregory, T. Sturge Moore, and James Stephens. Nor was this "Celtic Twilight" the extent of Irish influence. The fall of Oscar Wilde (imprisoned 1895, died 1900) was still fresh in everybody's memory, and supplied a clear directive indicating where the new literature would not easily be allowed to go.

"Decadence", and "Art for Art's sake" were out. It was too robust an age – too consciously robust – to spare much sympathy for perversion, or aberrations of other kinds – witness the neglect of that remarkable figure: Catholic, homosexual, paranoiac; Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo (Hadrian the Seventh (1904), The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (1909) - though not published until 1934). The young James Joyce, impatient with the claustophobic nationalism of Ireland, left for Paris in 1902, though he did not publish his first book, Chamber Music, until 1907. Dubliners appeared, belatedly, in 1914, at the same time as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was being serialized in the Egoist, the Imagist periodical. Nor can one ignore George Moore, who, together with Henry James, had done most during the last decades of the Victorian era to introduce the rigorous standards of the French novel into English. Though he had now turned to assisting the Irish cause and the Abbey Theatre, he was to be responsible for one of the most characteristic products of the age, his three volume autobiography, Hail and Farewell: Ave (1911), Salve (1912), and Vale (1914).

Which brings us to:

The French influence. On the one hand we have a writer actually born in France and educated in England, Hilaire Belloc, who later returned to do his military service in the pre-war French artillery (The Path to Rome (1902), The Servile State (1912)); on the other, the near-universal influence of French canons of taste on the contemporary novel. John Synge and Masefield, as they walked together through the streets of London, talked of French authors (Masefield, 1924, p.189). Ford Madox Hueffer and Joseph Conrad quoted long passages from Flaubert's Trois Contes at each other (Ford, 1924, pp.31 & 208). Turgenev (another Francophile) in French translation – as well as Flaubert, the Gourmonts, Maupassant – were the major influences on Henry James.

Mention of Hilaire Belloc reminds us of another feature of the age – the renewed news-worthiness of Roman Catholicism. G. K. Chesterton (The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Orthodoxy (1908)), and his friend Belloc, the "Chesterbelloc", were merely the most vocal of its adherents. Priests, or the reaction against them (Joyce's Holy Office (1904)), were, understandably, prominent in the new Irish writing ('The holiness of monks, and after / Porter-drinkers' randy laughter' (Yeats, 1977, p.400): Yeats; not to mention his 'Ballad of Father Gilligan'). There were also other figures such as Corvo and, more importantly, Francis Thompson (1859-1907), a former tramp and the author of 'The Hound of Heaven' (1890) (Meynell, 1941, p.356), asserting its paramountcy.

Tramps, too: the Edwardian age was open to all layers of "honest experience”, and former tramps were not disqualified from entering the lists of literature. W. H. Davies published his Autobiography of a Super-Tramp in 1908 (he had once actually encountered Francis Thompson in a Lambeth doss-house, but had not had the courage to speak to him (Davies, 1951, p.xxv)0. Masefield also had been "on the tramp" in America, and was disapproved of in consequence by Yeats's old housekeeper (according to Lady Gregory): 'Her back stiffened and her nose went up higher as she caught fragments of the reminiscences of one she no doubt considered to be no better than a tramp' (Smith, 1978, p.61). Yeats and his friends, however, saw this simply as good potential literary material, and advised Masefield to write an early autobiography on the strength of it.

The whole class structure of literature was coming under attack – especially the statute that said a gentleman could write about the lower classes, but the lower classes could not write about gentlemen (the one which Hardy had contravened with his first, unpublished novel, The Poor Man and The Lady). D. H. Lawrence, a miner's son, was writing about miners and their wives – but also about his views on the rest of society, and his own agonizing internal class struggle (Sons and Lovers (1913), The Prussian Officer (1914)). Galsworthy, outraged by his own ostracism from bourgeois society, was denouncing the middle classes (The Man of Property (1906) – Strife, the first play to present the case of a striking trade union sympathetically, in 1909).

Victorian low-life had had its Mayhew and its Dickens, but their work was now being extended by a number of commentators on the "lower depths". Arthur Morrison (Tales of Mean Streets (1894), A Child of the Jago (1896), Hole in the Wall (1902)) was perhaps the most celebrated of these; but one should not forget Somerset Maugham's Liza of Lambeth (1897); or Jack London, whose book The People of the Abyss (1902) was to exert a strong influence on Orwell's researches a quarter of a century later.

Jack London should serve to remind us of another strong foreign contingent: The Americans. To begin with, the Imagists: Ezra Pound, who arrived in Europe in 1908, and promptly published A Lume Spento in Italy; H.D., who followed him in 1911 (and married Richard Aldington, the editor of the Egoist, in 1913); Wyndham Lewis, born in America but brought up in England, who edited Blast during 1914-15. Another protégé of Pound's (for a time, at any rate) was Robert Frost, whose first two books, A Boy's Will 1913, and North of Boston 1914, were published in England, and who was largely responsible for persuading Edward Thomas to start writing poetry. Besides, of course, the omnipresent Henry James, whose move to Lamb House, Rye, in 1898 marked the beginning of a new phase in his work (The Golden Bowl 1904, The American Scene 1906).

The most remarkable case of all is that of Joseph Conrad, a tri-lingual Polish seaman who became not a curiosity but a central pillar of the English novel (even according to the somewhat selective line of descent prescribed by F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition). No other single fact could make so clear just how un-claustrophobic was the Edwardian literary atmosphere. Stuffy, yes – guarded, in a number of directions (especially those where Oscar Wilde's baleful precedent loomed), but open to experiment and fresh influences. W. H. Hudson (Green Mansions (1904)), and R. B. Cunninghame Graham (13 Stories (1900)), represented South America for the English; J. M. Barrie and John Buchan the Scottish. Samuel Butler, our honorary New Zealander, revisited Erewhon in 1901, though his real contribution to the new age was that classic analysis of Victorian hypocrisy, The Way of All Flesh (finally published, posthumously, in 1903); which was followed by Gosse's Father and Son in 1907. (Lytton Strachey published his first book, Landmarks in French Literature, in 1912; but Eminent Victorians, and with it the full flood of reaction against Victorianism, did not appear until 1918).

Then there was the growing literature of colonialism ­reporting the actual life in Britain's far-flung Empire. Kipling had been writing of India since the 1880's (Barrack-Room Ballads appearing in 1892), but Kim itself did not come out until 1901; after which he turned to the exploration of his own country and its past (Puck of Pook's Hill (1906), Rewards and Fairies (1910)). Kipling was undoubtedly a far more popular poet than Yeats at the time (for that matter, than the Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin) ­though the two appealed to different classes of reader; and the Nobel Prize for literature awarded to him in 1907 showed just how influential he was in establishing Britain's image overseas. 'What do they know of England, who only England know?' (Orwell, 1977, 2: 224) could perhaps be seen as the central dictum of the age – especially if one takes into account the negative, "little Englander" reactions to it, as well as the proud endorsements. Kipling probably meant it only of the Empire, but if we extend it to include France, the rest of Europe, and America, it goes a long way towards summing up the Edwardian spirit – the desire to see one's own country in a new way, through new eyes.

(ii) Selected Examples

Having given a thumbnail sketch of the broader movements in Edwardian literature, it remains to explain how they relate to our subject, John Masefield, before going on to examine some of them in greater detail.

Yeats was perhaps the strongest influence on Masefield poetically, and Yeats's circle provided him with most of his literary friends (he could, in fact, almost be said to have been an "acolyte" in the Irish school). One of the things he had in common with them was a strong devotion to French canons of taste: (when defining the novelist in a later essay on playwriting, he naturally chose an illustration from Stendhal: 'a looking glass sauntering down the street' (Masefield, 1924, p.117) – though with Masefieldian elements added (that 'sauntering)).

So much for the French and the Irish. As for Conrad, though very different as writers, they at least shared a common subject, the sea – and it is instructive to compare their very different methods of dealing with it (even in Captain Margaret, the earliest of his novels, Masefield's concentration on the minutiae and technicalities of seafaring is greater than Conrad's, who was always more concerned with the effects of his settings on the characters in the foreground).

Like Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy, though in a much more idealized way, Masefield was concerned with the plight of the working-man - hence his famous poem, 'A Consecration':

Not of the princes and prelates with periwigged charioteers
Riding triumphantly laurelled to lap the fat of the years, –
Rather the scorned – the rejected – the men hemmed in with the spears (Masefield, 1941, p.3).

He also shared with them a passionate concern for the amelioration of society (as I will discuss in Chapter Four).

Although he decisively repudiated the influence, his Salt-­Water Ballads (1902) must have seemed at the time, at any rate, a direct echo, in a different context, of Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads, with which they have many stylistic features in common (though Masefield says that 'one might just as well say that Kipling got his manner from Burns as that I got mine from Kipling' (Smith, 1978, p.72)). In contrast to Yeats, the emerging Modernists seem to have affected him little; but the South America of Conrad, Hudson, and Graham was to provide settings for many of his works (he had passed through it on his way back from Chile in 1894; at the same time visiting the Caribbean and the Spanish Main.[1]

In order to systematize all of these influences – as well as diagnosing the trends in the novel, specifically, at the time when Masefield first began to write in that form – it seems best to discuss a few isolated examples, rather than giving a more generalized survey of each of the major figures in the field. This is in the hope of discerning in the process what is characteristic of each of these works individually, and what typical of the age as a whole.

The term "Realism" – in its many differing senses – is central to the comprehension of the Edwardian period. It was equally important to those accepting it as an ideal, and those rejecting it as an incubus. Of the former, everyone, from the followers of Zola (if one may so describe George Moore) to the Modernists, believed himself to be embodying it more effectively than his rivals and predecessors. It was the great criterion dividing one school from another.

The first novel I have chosen to discuss is Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago, a classic of realism, since its observations are sober sociological fact, and were accepted as such by later commentators on the East End (such as Jack London in The People of the Abyss). The most interesting thing about this novel, as a novel, is its resolute dependence on Dickensian tricks of style. The usual tone of the writing is inflated and bombastic, as we can see here at the very beginning of the book:

It was past the mid of a summer night in the Old Jago. The narrow street was all the blacker for the lurid sky; for there was a fire in a farther part of Shoreditch, and the welkin was an infernal coppery glare. (Morrison, 1946, p.9)

Morrison seems to have gathered a large amount of material – on slum life, the gradual processes of degradation, and the fate of the children born under such conditions – which he has then attempted to shape into a novel. Since Dickens (and, to a lesser extent, George Gissing), were his only real predecessors in this area, he naturally aped the former's style and technical tricks. The novel begins episodically, like Pickwick – though, to do Morrison justice, slum life does seem to naturally present itself to him in scenes and short vignettes (vignettes such as those he captured, with considerably less straining after stylistic effect, in Tales of Mean Streets). Towards the end, however, he has managed to link it all into a melodramatic "plot" – complete with murder (resembling that in Oliver Twist - or, for that matter, Martin Chuzzlewit), and trial (like Fagin's – even down to the trivialities around which the prisoner's thoughts obsessively turn: 'The judge stopped a witness to speak of a draught from a window. Josh Perrott watched the shutting of the window – they did it with a cord. He had not noticed a draught himself. But pigeons were flying outside the panes and resting on the chimney-stacks' (p.181)). The execution, with the relatives clustered anxiously around the prison-door, rather reminds one of Tess, but the resemblance could easily be coincidental – Dickens, too, has treated of hangings.

Thus Morrison's technique and his material can be seen to be rather at variance. His equipment as a novel-writer seems to be mainly observation and imitation of his masters, the great Victorians; but his subject-matter is that of an anthropologist. Strangely enough, this basic attitude of honest reportage is not greatly obscured by the mock-heroic pomposity of his language. It is almost as if the requirements in style and plot typical of the late nineteenth-century novel are felt by him as conventions no more obtrusive, and no more avoidable, than having to put a capital letter at the beginning of a line of verse. His attention is free to occupy itself elsewhere – with the true nature of the conditions he is describing. Thus, though his description of a fight among a group of slum­women rather resembles in style the famous fight in the churchyard in Tom Jones, we are left in Morrison's case with the sense of an actual, everyday occurrence somewhat stiltedly narrated, rather than the stylistic tour-de-force of Fielding. We may regret that Morrison was not a good enough writer to forge a new style for himself; but, on the other hand, his lack of "individual vision" prevents him from ruthlessly shaping and trimming his matter to fit his particular view of things (a charge from which it would not be easy fully to absolve Dickens).

Some prejudice is, of course, still observable – the poor being roughly classified as "deserving" and "undeserving"; but he treats conventional attempts at philanthropy with scorn as mere face-saving hypocrisy (one gets the impression that he rather approves of Dicky's theft of the bishop's watch, at the opening of the new wing of the 'East End Elevation Mission and Pansophical Institute' (p.18)). There is, however, a "right way" to react to these conditions – to apply "muscular Christianity" to the sufferings of the underprivileged; and that is the way exemplified by Father Sturt, who refuses to judge or preach, but tries, nevertheless, to help all he can ­without ever losing sight of the nature of his parishioners:

'An' 'ow jer find jerself, sir?' he asked, with pantomime cordiality. 'Hof'ly shockin' these 'ere lower classes, ain't they? Er – yus; disgustin', weally. Er – might I – er – prepose – er – a little refreshment? Ellow me.'

The parson, grimly impassive, heard him through, took the pot, and instantly jerking it upward, shot the beer, a single splash, into Kiddo's face. 'There are things I must teach you, I see, my man,' he said (Morrison, 1946, p.64).

Father Sturt is sympathetic and willing to help, but he knows he can get nowhere without the respect of those he serves.

To Morrison, then, these are indeed 'the people of the abyss' – the lost, the oppressed. They cannot be seen simply as human beings in their own right. One central message – reform – is clear in all he writes. Naturally enough, mind you – for. who could look on such conditions without feeling moral indignation? Nevertheless, the fact that he has a didactic aim rather than a desire to "see life steadily and see it whole", affects decisively the way in which he presents what he sees. There are some things about the Jago which simply cannot be revealed – incest, baby-bashing, and the grosser lapses of hygiene (Dicky is represented as loving his ailing little sister – but he might as easily have hated her). Jack London goes further than Morrison, but even he writes 'It is rather hard to tell a tithe of what I saw. Much of it is untellable' (1962, p.166). This is partially because such things just did not get into print in those days; but also because neither Morrison nor London can afford to turn indignation into disgust by pointing out some of the true features of a slum – the mental and spiritual, as well as the physical degradation. In short, the "undeserving" aspects. As it is, Morrison goes quite far enough to shock most of his readers – any more might easily have tipped the scale.

It is interesting to examine Maugham's Liza of Lambeth in this context. Maugham's slums are, of course, on a less degraded level than the Jago – but, even so, he concentrates on the personal tragedy of Liza far more than on the collective horror of her surroundings. She is his subject in a way that Dicky never is Morrison's. Maugham's novel is "realist" in that it presents a picture of slum life without obvious romanticization, and with every appearance of authenticity – based on his observations as a young obstetric clerk (Maugham, 1950, pp.vii-viii) – but he has no particular message to preach. Morrison tells us more of the slums ­- is a more reliable witness – because he has a didactic purpose, and therefore cannot afford to falsify his information. But this purpose also dictates to him exactly how much of the truth he can afford to reveal without alienating his audience. Nor is his picture entirely undistorted by his own derivative novelistic techniques. Maugham is less reliable because less comprehensive – he is using the slums simply as background – but is, as far as one can tell, accurate within his own limits. His one selective principle is whatever serves his purposes as an artist – which distorts his picture in precisely the opposite way from Morrison's. His writing is, however, much less stylized – and his story is allowed to unfold naturally and without authorial moralizing (something which he had learnt from the French – especially Maupassant).

Novels of the slums are rather at the extreme end of the spectrum, but it would probably be fair to say that the twin elements of either "artistic selectivity" or "didacticism", exemplified by Maugham and Morrison, are central to any Edwardian novel readily definable as "realist". Both of these two authors are reticent at times – and about much the same things. Both of them do this in order to avoid shocking the public – which makes their works appear superficially similar. But in fact they are working from totally different premises – Morrison from the necessity of dramatizing social injustices; and Maugham from the necessity of having a well-defined background to balance the reactions and attitudes of his characters.

I have now, however, chosen to examine another sort of novel: the Bildungsroman, or novel of a young man's education in the world, of which the prototype is Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. The genre is rather flippantly summed up by Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow:

Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future. (Huxley, 1949, p.26)

(The first version of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), one of the classics of the form, was entitled The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey (Maugham, 1968, p.5) – in much the same vein). Other Edwardian examples include Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger (1910), Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Butler's The Way of All Flesh. The one I have chosen to discuss, however, is Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street.

Mackenzie's novel was originally intended as part of a Roman fleuve, to be collectively entitled The Theatre of Youth, but which was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I (vol. I of Sinister Street appeared in September 1913, but vol. II not until November 1914, after the war had begun). One reason, indeed, for abandoning the projected series was this rigid boundary. to the epoch it was designed to describe ('The First World War as a deus ex machina would soon have become intolerable to myself and to my readers' (Mackenzie, 1969, p.12)).

The title of Sinister Street refers to the hero, Michael's, illegitimacy ("bend sinister") – although this fact is not greatly enlarged upon in the text. Nevertheless, this is one of the several factors which gave it such a "questionable" reputation at the time. (George Orwell and Cyril Connolly were punished for having a copy of it in their possession at their prep. school in the 20's (Orwell, 1978, 4: 479) and this "notoriety" extended even into the 1950's, as is revealed by a passage from Geoffrey Trease's The Gates of Bannerdale, a children's book published in 1956:

On my sixteenth birthday Mr. Morchard had presented me with Sinister Street, by Compton Mackenzie.

"Strong meat in places, Bill," he had murmured with an apologetic cough, "but I think you're ready for it.

"Heavens, yes!" Penny had hooted. "I read it last year – and I'm younger than Bill. By the calendar," she added with a challenging flash of her dark eyes. (Trease, 1965, p.7))

This was, however, rather out of date by then, and Compton Mackenzie himself, introducing a new edition of the novel in 1949, admitted that 'It will not surprise me to find young people of today, heirs of two mundane wars, impatient of an adolescence than which their own adolescence is riper by a generation, because they will be feeling comparatively so much older and comparatively so much wiser' (1969, p.12).

A modern reader would, naturally, be rather hard put to it to find any cause for offence, but we must try to translate ourselves back into the position of those first readers (even Henry James congratulated Mackenzie for 'emancipating the English novel', (Mackenzie, 1969, p.l1)). The hero's illegitimacy had caused much of the fuss about the first volume, which worried Mackenzie because, as he said: 'I was sure that the second volume would be considered much stronger meat than anything in the first volume, and it seemed vital to beat them in the fight over that first volume' (1969, p.10). His worry was occasioned, presumably, by Michael's unfortunate love affair with Lily Haden, which dominates volume II. She is a "common", though extremely beautiful, girl whom he met when they were both children, and who finally betrays him with another man. Lily is really little better than a tart – and a rather successful one, at that; which prevents Mackenzie from taking refuge in the excuse that he is only presenting her as a warning to others.

Mackenzie was, in fact, describing the type of obsessive love affair which Proust so brilliantly anatomized in 'Un Amour de Swann'. ('For the journey back to Capri in that fateful October Edmund Gosse gave me a copy of Marcel Proust's Du Côté de Chez Swann which had just been published. "I seem to discern an expression of the same spirit in your Sinister Street," he said, "though I am not suggesting any positive resemblance between the two books.'" (Mackenzie, 1969, p.11)). Mackenzie, like Proust (who was, however, drawing on a long tradition in the French novel of objectivity in such matters), is trying to represent honestly the emotions involved in such an affair ­- irrational though they may be at times – and he cannot allow traditional moral judgements to hamper his accuracy. Not that the picture is not conventional enough – Michael is besotted and foolish, Lily "beautiful but bad"; however the shocking thing is that the affair does not seem to be profoundly damaging to either. To Michael, who, as an illegitimate son, should not be so unequivocally in the hero's role in any case – or who should at least be showing a little more guilt and shame about his status - it is a ­mere sowing of wild oats (Book Four of the novel is entitled 'Romantic Education', to contrast with the 'Classic Education' – Book Two – undergone at his public­ school). Its main consequence is simply to teach him a lot more about himself and about the world. Insofar as Mackenzie was setting out a guide for conduct at all, he could be said to be positively recommending such an adventure! Nor does the author disguise his fascination with the character of Lily (her similarly "gay" friend, Sylvia Scarlett, was later to have a whole book, in the same series, devoted to her: The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett, 1918-19).

Sinister Street upset conventional expectations because of the subjects it dared to discuss – there was nothing particularly innovative about the views which Mackenzie held on these subjects. Today they would seem almost stuffily conventional. Nor would his book have given rise to much comment in France, where such matters were novelistic commonplaces. In short, we would tend to criticize the book for its lack of objectivity about sex (and for Mackenzie's obvious preference for the priggish Michael rather than the "unworthy" – in fact, exploited Lily); they, for daring to deal with such "unhealthy" matters at all.

Actually, one of the most interesting things about the whole controversy is just how irrelevant it was – managing to miss the whole point of the book. Its very real popularity ('until Sinister Street ... was allowed to go out of print just before the Second World War, it was still selling at its original price at least 1,000 copies a year' (Mackenzie, 1969, p.12)) was perhaps stirred up initially by the desire to read something "shocking", but it was sustained by the book's unclouded, idyllic romanticism – by its picture of that fabled "golden age" before the First World War. Mackenzie assures us that:

Sinister Street is so exactly dated that it remains alive, and although the public-school and university therein depicted may seem unimaginable to the Jacobeans and the St Mary's men of today, contemporary schoolboys and undergraduates can feel sure that at the beginning of this century life at a big London day school and life at a fashionable Oxford college were just as I have depicted them. (1969, p.12)

Nevertheless, one fears that some doubt must remain on this point. One might accept that there is no obvious falsification, but the very chapter titles imply a certain attitude of nostalgia for this vanished world : Book Three – about Oxford – is called (of course), 'Dreaming Spires', and there is no reason to suspect Mackenzie of meaning it ironically! It begins with 'The First Day', 'The First Week', 'The First Term' – the hero's gradual immersion in a new and exciting life; and ends with the agonies of his slow withdrawal: 'The Last Term', 'The Last Week', 'The Last Day'. Oxford, most romantic of English universities, is here seen in its Saturnian age – before the Fall, the First World War – and Mackenzie's triumph is to present this academic Arcadia convincingly and with verisimilitude. The faintest suggestion that it is a fantasy – that life neither is nor ever has been like that – would have destroyed the whole effect, and so a careful atmosphere of plausibility is built up around Michael's various successes – both social and academic. His apparently effortless first – we are told that 'He sat up all night, and went down tight-eyed and pale-faced to the final encounter' (Mackenzie, 1969, p.587), but this hardly seems enough to counterbalance three years of easy, leisured life – is a case in point; as is the Dons' obvious reluctance to have him finally leave them. It is all undoubtedly possible – such things happen. But it is not representative – they do not happen to many of us. Naturally we prefer to read of triumphs rather than failures – if we can believe in them; and Mackenzie's merit lies in never disturbing this will to believe.

If Philip Larkin's Jill occupies one extreme of the portrayal of life at a university – even worse than the reality – then, perhaps, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited represents the opposite pole. Sinister Street is certainly closer to Waugh (indeed the similarities between the two books – both recalling the glories of a departed past in the middle of a world war – are very striking). Nevertheless, Mackenzie is not Waugh – for one thing, he is far less of a reactionary. He writes of things as they seem to bim, and not, as is largely the case with Waugh, to "épater" the proletarian (rather than the bourgeois). (Perhaps this is to do an injustice to Haugh, though – we must remember that his book was written in war-time, in an atmosphere of 'soya beans and Basic English' (Waugh, 1982, p.9); whereas Mackenzie was writing before his war, in the full flush of the Edwardian summer, with an eye undistorted by hindsight). Mackenzie's, then, is certainly a selective picture – but not really a falsified one. The mood may be exaggeratedly idyllic, but the details are, we are informed on good authority, quite authentic ('far and away the most telling description even written of an English university': Raymond Mortimer).[2]

For all that, "Realism" in this novel equates with outspokenness, and "Romanticism" with nostalgia. Since realism dates faster, the manifestations of it in Sinister Street appear, at best, trite – at worst, questionable (the implicit condemnation of Lily's, rather than Michael's, sexual irregularities, for example). The romanticism is not "pure", either, but depends on the assertion that the golden age it depicts once actually existed – in a particular place, at a particular time. The Oxford scenes are the ones which everyone remembers – but the rest of the book is imbued with similar feelings of escape – escape from quotidian reality, from, it might seem in retrospect, the approaching shadow of war.

This is the other side of the coin from the impulses observable in Arthur Morrison and his followers. They wished to portray the brutal facts underlying the smooth and imperturbable façade of Edwardian society – prostitution, drunkenness, unemployment, ignorance, and grime. But such fervour breeds an equal and opposite reaction – the desire to dwell only on what is pleasant, to give readers what they want – to "entertain", to be cheerful. The opposite of Morrison's Cassandra is P. G. Wodehouse. There was a third aspect as well, however, which prevented the "unengaged" writer from falling immediately into the arms of Jeeves and the Earl of Emsworth – the belief that one's writings should be, as Horace put it: 'dulce et utile' – useful as well as pleasing. This desire to educate, to uplift – in effect, to entertain for a purpose – is noticeable in almost all Edwardian novelists in one form or another.

Almost by definition a novelist has to entertain his readers ('That book is good in vain, which the reader throws away' (Johnson, 1912, 1:334)) – which is why Arthur Morrison puts on the trappings of Dickens instead of setting out his findings in a tract. However, a writer who sees things in a sufficiently complex light may lose the propagandist's desire to subordinate his matter to a particular point of view. Joseph Conrad, for example, could not be said to have any obvious point to make (except, perhaps – in an equivocal way – about the horrors of colonialism and certain other aspects of the world we live in). Most Edwardians tended to follow Morrison's lead rather than Conrad's. True children of their age, they retained enough belief in human perfectibility to agitate unceasingly for change – assuming it must be for the better. (The First World War was, we must remember, the great disillusioning blow to a whole century of optimism – up till then, the accepted view had been that "every day, in every way, the world is getting better and better"). The Utopias and Anti-Utopias of H. G. Wells – the essential seriousness of Bernard Shaw – the generalized sympathy of Arnold Bennett ­even Henry James' revulsion at the corruption of innocence – all were part of this desire to leave one's reader a little better off for what he had read.

Compton Mackenzie was certainly no propagandist (indeed in later life pure escape – Whisky Galore, the 'Ben Nevis' books – became his forte), but even he reminds us, at the end of Michael Fane's long progress, that it has all been for a purpose – to make his hero into a better man and citizen:

'All that I have done and experienced so far,' Michael thought, 'would not scratch this stone. I have been concerned for the happiness of other people without gratitude for the privilege of service. I have been given knowledge and I fancied I was given disillusion. If now I offer myself to God very humbly, I give myself to the service of man ...' (Mackenzie, 1969, p.828)

In summary, then, we appear to have isolated three trends in the Edwardian novel: "Realism" – showing things as they really are (in all the various different ways such a prescription can be taken). "Romanticism" – or Escape - ­the desire to ignore, for once, the "seamy side", and to sail off into a less harrowing realm of self-indulgent pleasure. And, finally, "Edification" – or Utility, or Uplift – the desire to leave your readers better in some way for having read your book. It is now appropriate to examine yet another type of novel – the novel of escape (in its various forms, "pure" and impure) – in order to see if it confirms, or modifies, our conclusions.

The Riddle of the Sands (1907), by Erskine Childers, seems to me a very good example of this genre, particularly considering its later reputation as "the novel which first warned us of the menace of Germany". There is an element in it, that is to say, of defiant paradox – implying that the really important business of life may just happen to be messing about in boats on the North Sea Coast of Germany, and incidentally helping to save the Empire, rather than in one's boring everyday occupation.

The protagonist, Carruthers, is left almost alone in London in the dead season of September, when everyone else is on holiday. Being a man of enterprise, he attempts to penetrate some of the "secrets of the metropolis" described in books such as Stevenson's New Arabian Nights; but this desire " … was finally quenched one sultry Saturday night after an hour's immersion in the reeking atmosphere of a low music-hall ... where I sat next a portly female who suffered from the heat, and at frequent intervals refreshed herself and an infant from a bottle of tepid stout' (Childers, 1955, p.16). We can certainly believe this aspect of Carruthers' adventures – initial deflation of "romantic" expectations is a commonplace of the real novel of escape, and Childers is careful to keep up the same appearance of verisimilitude throughout (the yacht, belonging to his friend Davies, from which they conduct their adventures, turns out to be a small, cramped, working boat, rather than the pleasure craft Carruthers was anticipating); but all this is simply to encourage us to credit some of the more extravagant portions of the plot. A fantasy, as I have argued above, à propos of Sinister Street, must be simultaneously believable and attractive to really satisfy.

Nor is it difficult to see roughly the same impulses at work in the initial rapturous welcome of the 1914 war by writers such as Rupert Brooke – even the enemy, Germany, is the same, while the 'world grown old and cold and weary' (Keynes, 1974, p.19) is precisely Carruthers' London – a life that has gone stale. Both Brooke and Childers desire escape from the 'half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary', and both have convinced themselves that what they are exchanging it for ­adventure, action, the open air – is both "cleaner" and more desirable, but also forced on them by honour – in effect, that it is their duty to go. One should not push this parallel too far – after all, a private adventure, however momentous, is not really analogous to a European war; but neither should we ignore the influence of swashbuckling adventure stories such as this on the actions and attitudes of those who sprang to the colours in 1914 (the book, after all, was written with the express intention of awaking England to its peril, as a 'record of Secret Service Recently Achieved'[3] – not just to entertain).

"Escape", then, it would appear, must at least pretend to have a useful purpose to justify its pursuit of fantasy. Even writers such as Wodehouse and J. M. Barrie (in his "whimsical" vein) must be seen to be pursuing the unattainable ideal of aesthetic perfection to justify their frivolity. And writers such as Childers, on a more mundane level, must pretend to be realistic in their descriptions and responsible in their intentions, however absurd their message really is. Childers' case is, of course, complicated by the fact that his warnings actually did turn out to be of some value – but, in the context or the novel itself, this simply shows a didactic subterfuge to cover up self-indulgent fantasy which was so successful that it fooled its own author; not to mention the rest of the world!

Perhaps, though, it would be better to examine a purer "novel or escape" if we are to give the form its due - Prester John (1910), the first in John Buchan's long series of adventure stories. The hero, David Crawfurd, a young Scotsman, tells the tale of how he foiled the plot of a negro messiah, the Rev. John Laputa, to set himself up as Emperor over Africa – a new 'Prester John'. The pretence of Crawfurd's narrative being simply a supplement to the official history of the campaign is, however, carefully kept up throughout (Buchan's concession to realism). Nor is the element of didacticism (one hesitates to call it "edification") forgotten – the imperial ideal, the notion of the "white man's burden" is expressed here so vehemently, with so little hesitation, that one rather suspects Buchan of preparing a counterblast to the more introspective and self-questioning adventure stories which were so typical of this era. One expects racial and national prejudice as a matter of course – the villain, Henriques, is described as having 'a face the colour of French mustard – a sort of dirty green – and blood-shot, beady eyes with the whites all yellowed with fever … and a curious, furtive way of walking and looking about him' (Buchan, 1960, pp.27-28). But when one is told that the description is insufficient: 'Tut, my man, most of the subjects of his Majesty the King of Portugal would answer to that description' (p.35), one feels that Buchan is exceeding the normal limits even of his age.

As for the negroes, they seem to be scarcely regarded as human – even their 'Emperor' Laputa, who 'had none of the squat and preposterous negro lineaments' (p.29), is 'also a Kaffir. He can see the first stage of a thing, and maybe the second, but no more. That is the native mind' (p.82). Buchan also throws in "subtle" hints to the reformers, notably in the scene where Crawfurd tries to convince Laputa that he is too stupid to pose a threat to the revolt:

I blush today to think of the stuff I talked. First I made him sit on a chair opposite me, a thing no white man in the country would have done. Then I told him affectionately that I liked natives, that they were fine fellows and better men than the dirty whites round about. I explained that I was fresh from England, and believed in equal rights for all men, white or coloured. God forgive me, but I think I said I hoped to see the day when Africa would belong once more to its rightful masters. (Buchan, 1960, p.90)

That is, in fact, the most pernicious aspect of this seemingly harmless piece of entertainment. The "message" which Buchan devises for his fantasy of African adventure actually bears on the real world. There actually was an Empire full of "Kaffirs" and foreigners – and it is unfair to devise a fantasy, bolster it up with plausible detail, and use it to denounce the filthy practices and habits of real people. It is irrelevant whether or not Buchan believed in what he was saying (though one suspects, from his vehemence, that he did – his narrator, at the end of the book, seeing the desert blossom like a rose, confides 'I knew then the meaning of the white man's duty' (p.202) (as Virgil put it, 'to exalt the humble, trample down the proud)). The fact remains: one cannot give a serious message through a deliberately distorting mirror – that is why "realism" is regarded as a virtue in art. Only the frivolous can afford to dispense with it; for without it, one cannot trust either the information one is receiving, or the conclusions that are drawn from this information. Buchan ignores this fact – and his story is only "harmless escape" as long as all its readers tacitly concur in ignoring any "serious" pronouncements on things in general contained therein.

One of the more interesting aspects of Buchan's adventure story (and reactionary tract) is his hero's admiration and respect for Laputa. Several times he warns the black leader not to trust the Judas in the rebel camp, Henriques – but he is also, at one stage, almost tempted to join the revolt:

By rights, I suppose, my blood should have been boiling at this treason. I am ashamed to confess that it did nothing of the sort … I had a mad desire to be of Laputa's party. Or rather, I longed for a leader who should master me and make my soul his own, as this man mastered his followers. (Buchan, 1960, p.112)

Crawfurd retreats from this experience feeling 'Last night I had looked into the heart of darkness, and the sight had terrified me' (p.116). It is difficult to know whether this echo of the title of Conrad's Heart of Darkness is intentional or not – but one suspects that it very likely is. Buchan, of course, is writing in the guise of a "simple Scottish Empire-builder", which gives him carte blanche to attribute any pernicious opinions to the narrator, and not to the author (notice that it is worship for power which draws Crawfurd to Laputa – 'I have already said that I might have made a good subaltern soldier, and the proof is that I longed for such a general' (p.112); Buchan too had his heroes – including T. E. Lawrence). The reference, then (ignoring its supposed attributability to Crawfurd), seems to be a reactionary gibe against Conrad's serious attempt to portray the implications of colonialism. Buchan obviously feels that all this is very unhealthy and "brainy" – an attitude revealed again in Mr Standfast, where he denounces, with laboured satire, a "modern" novel entitled Leprous Souls. Crawfurd, at any rate, pulls himself from the brink of an abyss of intellectual complexity with the reflection that:

Fortunately for mankind the brain in a life of action turns more to the matter in hand than to conjuring up the chances of the future. (Buchan, 1960, p.100)

Our original picture, then, of three basic drives in the novel: Realism – its opposite, Romanticism (or "escape") ­and Edification (or didacticism), needs to be redefined to some extent. Among the different motives for "realism" are:
  1. the aesthetic intention of showing things as they are (Joyce's Dubliners), &
  2. the didactic intention of correcting abuses (A Child of the Jago).

"Escape", too, can be aesthetically motivated – using the cover of art to justify frivolity (E. F. Benson); or didactic, and therefore to some extent misleading – at times fairly harmlessly (Childers), when there is no real distortion of facts (simply a "rattling good yarn" woven around them); but also quite perniciously – when an exceptionally entertaining adventure story (Prester John), is used to put across some very dubious moral attitudes.

This framework, too, may prove inadequate to sustain the complexities of our material – but it at least provides us with a starting-point, and a paradigm, against which to measure Masefield in the chapters to come.

2. Quoted on the front cover of the Penguin edition (Mackenzie, 1969).

3. Sub-title on title page of Childers (1955).

[John Masefield: Collected Poems (1931)]

Works Cited:

  • Buchan, John. Prester John. 1910. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

  • Childers, Erskine. The Riddle of the Sands. 1907. Mariners Library. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1955.

  • Davies, W. H. The Collected Poems. Introduction by Osbert Sitwell. London: Jonathan Cape, 1951.

  • Ford, Ford Madox. Joseph Conrad, A Personal Remembrance. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1924.

  • Heilbrun, Carolyn G. The Garnett Family: The History of a Literary Family. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961.

  • Huxley, Aldous. Crome Yellow. 1921. London: Chatto & Windus, 1949.

  • Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. World's Classics. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912.

  • Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. The Poetical Works of Rupert Brooke. London: Faber, 1974.

  • Larkin, Philip, ed. The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.

  • London, Jack. The People of the Abyss. 1902. London: Arco Publications, 1962.

  • Mackenzie, Compton. Sinister Street. 1913-14. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  • Masefield, John. Recent Prose. London: Heinemann, 1924.

  • Masefield, John. Collected Poems. 1923. 3rd ed. London: Heinemann, 1941.

  • Maugham, W. Somerset. Liza of Lambeth. 1897. London: Heinemann, 1950.

  • Maugham, W. Somerset. Of Human Bondage. 1915. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

  • Meynell, Wilfrid, ed. The Poems of Francis Thompson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941.

  • Morrison, Arthur. A Child of the Jago. 1896. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946.

  • Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 4 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975-78.

  • Smith, Constance Babington. John Masefield: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

  • Trease, Geoffrey. The Gates of Bannerdale. 1956. London: Heinemann, 1965.

  • Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

  • Yeats, W. B. Collected Poems. London: Macmillan, 1977.

[John Masefield: A Book of Both Sorts (1947)]


  1. Hi ! I dont know if you will have this message on time, first I'm sorry for my english, i'm french, from quebec. I am actually in scenography at university, and I am working at this moment on the poem Twilight. I try to find some explications but I find nothing. For me this poem seems really obscur, remind me the spirit of maybe is natal village, in his childhood at the and of the XIXth century.... But I would like to know more about the true sense of this poem.... You are maybe a good source for me, better than the poor information I find on internet and the school library. You can answer me back on lovely_poukie@hotmail.com Thank you, and also thanks because I learned a lot about him in your work ! Congrat'S !

  2. Well, it seems mostly a mood poem to me. Insofar as there's a deeper meaning, I think I would see it in the implication that friendship outlasts death. The speaker does, after all, "travel the road with [his] friend", while recalling those other "Friends with the beautiful eyes that the dust has defiled / Beautiful souls who were gentle when I was a child." As with so much other verse from this period, it also sounds a bit homoerotic (a bit like A. E. Housman in mood, though not really in style).

    Interesting to speculate what exactly he means by "I know that death cannot last." Is it an expression of traditional Christian belief in an afterlife, or some other kind of - perhaps less personal - survival?