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The vanishing man of letters.

Part Two

TRADITIONALLY, the image of the Man of Letters is that of a quiet and gentle scholar leading an eminently civilised life isolated behind the stout book barriers of his comfortable study. Perhaps. But sometimes the Man of Letters could also be fierce; none fiercer than John Churton Collins (1848-1908). He could be positively savage. His Ephemera Critica is a breviary of carefully calculated insult. Not that, in the majority of cases, it was unearned outcome! But Collins was an undeniably strange Bookman. Keen as mustard, fearless as well as tactless, he did not hesitate to treat even the great George Saintsbury to a barbed tongue-lashing. Reviewing that critic's A Short History of English Literature, he referred scathingly to 'the mingled coarseness, triviality and dogmatism of his tone, the audacious nonsense of his generalisations, and the offensive vulgarity of his diction and style--a very well of English defiled ... he has imported into his work the worst characteristics of irresponsible journalism'. And, a final damning note, 'he seems to take a boisterous pride in exhibiting his grossness'. It was his persistently negative, not to say paranoid, ferocity as a reviewer that brought Churton Collins the opprobrium of his peers. Tennyson, who is known to have referred to him as a 'Jackass', is further alleged (by Gosse) to have epithetised him as 'A louse on the locks of literature'.

He was a sort of Jack the Ripper of the literary journals--a curiously apt citing, for as it happens Collins was an extremely ardent amateur of crime, always avid for a good wrangle over the riddles of celebrated criminological mysteries, and did actually join in the East End hunt for the veritable Jack. He also contrived to scrape up an acquaintance with the Tichborne Claimant. Railways, psychical research, and the combing of graveyards were other enthusiasms. Indeed, whenever he visited a strange town his first port of call was always the local cemetery. Although hard-working, good-humoured, and exemplarily patient as a teacher, he was subject to violent mood swings and his ebullience could evaporate in a trice, to be replaced by a black suicidal depression which might last for months. He fought a long battle for the recognition of English literature in the university curriculum, and saw victory in 1893 with the establishment of the English honours school at Oxford. Collins died a bizarre death in 1908 under circumstances just as mysterious as those of any of the old murders he so loved to puzzle over. Seized by an acute attack of depression, he decided to spend a month of rest and recuperation at a doctor friend's in Lowestoft. He appeared to have improved greatly, but on the day that he was due to leave he was found drowned in four feet of brackish water in a dyke on the outskirts of the town. In his pocket were sedatives and a sheet of paper scrawled with some disturbingly appropriate lines from Piers Plowman:
 I was wearie of wandering
 And went me to reste
 Under a brod banke
 Bi a bourne side.

 And as I lay and leonede
 And lokede on the waters
 I slumbered in a sleping
 Hit sownede so murie.

Among the victims of Collins' penchant for vituperative style literary evaluation was one who was destined to become the Man of Letters par excellence, the most revered critical panjandrum of his day, Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), faithfully portrayed in his full-flowering incarnation as august Librarian of the House of Lords, as 'an elderly mandarin who prided himself on his coroneted friends'. His father, Philip Henry Gosse, was the celebrated naturalist and 'inventor' of the drawing-room aquarium. Edmund, losing his mother when he was seven, was brought up by his father, as recorded, in somewhat ungrateful, biased, and inaccurate fashion, in his classic Father and Son (1907). Obliged to earn a living, he found a bookish niche, starting work at the age of seventeen as an assistant librarian in the British Museum. In 1875, he moved over, to work as a translator, at the Board of Trade. And there he stayed, comfortably situated, reasonably paid, with an amplitude of time to pursue his literary interests, for the next 29 years, until, in 1904, he was offered, and eagerly seized, the House of Lords librarianship. He was to remain self-importantly there until his retirement at the age of sixty-five in 1914. Throughout the entire period of his occupation of the civil service positions which provided his bread and butter, he was hard at work, dining out, meeting the right people, making sure that he was in the right places at the right times, and steadily writing books, essays, articles, and critiques. It was with his From Shakespeare to Pope (1885) that he came to grief. It fell into the churlish critical hands of Churton Collins, who launched a devastating, albeit justified, attack on it and its heavy cargo of howlers. It was a broadside that left permanent scar tissue, but he was nothing if not a pachydermatous survivor.

Argument still tosses back and forth on the question of Gosse's sexuality. There can be no gainsaying his highly emotional attachment to young Hamo Thornbury, but was he, as Phyllis Grosskurth's interpretation--or misinterpretation--of a passage of an 1890 letter to John Addington Symonds suggests, homosexual? The Grosskurth view has been disseminated by other literary historians, such as Robert Gittings, Jenni Calder, John Gross, and Ted Morgan in his biography of Somerset Maugham. Leon Edel was sceptical. Lytton Strachey, asked point-blank, replied, 'No, but he's Hamosexual'. Nonetheless, the apercu lingers of Gosse, attending Browning's funeral in Westminster Abbey, taking repeated furtive looks at a homoerotic photograph of a beautiful lad sent to him by Symonds, and composing an apt sextain in his mind, and raises uncomfortable doubts. Was he, after all, a covert closet queen? One wonders, too, if he was a party to, participant indeed in, the villainies of Thomas J. Wise? The latest solid research indicates that he was a fly rather than a fellow-spider in that particular web of literary forgeries. Knighted in 1925, silken Sir Edmund, a hypocritical amalgam of pomposity, flattery, and seductive candour, hiding behind a row of snuff-coloured volumes of his essays--from Gossip in a Library (1891) to Leaves and Fruit (1927)--remains the artful dodger of the socio-political-literary landscape. A cat person, claws in velvet paws, he was malicious, vain, an incorrigible snob and social climber, who oiled his way, first, into the society of prominent persons, and then into personal prominence. For the last nine years of his life he was chief book reviewer of the Sunday Times, unfailingly contributing a weekly piece.

Gosse's empty chair at the Sunday Times came under the incumbency of Desmond MacCarthy (1877-192). The sum of a curiously admixed genetic lottery--half Irish, one quarter German, one quarter French--his birthright Englishness was reinforced by his years at Eton, Trinity, Cambridge, and the Apostles. Gifted with, among many other positive qualities, easy charm, which worked even in the nippy climate of the Bloomsberries, and love of, and skill at, good conversation, he had one fatal flaw, his enemy of promise, congenital idleness. He was a man of extraordinarily low vitality, who displayed a chronic inability to get out of bed in the morning, or to get into it at night. A fortunate marriage to Molly, the energetic and highly capable daughter of an Eton housemaster, Francis Warre-Cornish, was the saving of him. He was thereafter perceptively described as travelling 'first-class through life on a third-class ticket'. The complaint laid against him was that he consistently failed to write the great book. A miniaturist rather than a painter on the grand scale, he nevertheless laboured sufficiently hard to become England's leading literary journalist, tossing out such shrewd insights as that Gertrude Stein's work bore comparison to Exercises 5 and 7 in Pitman's Commercial Typewriting Manual, and receiving a knighthood the year before his death. Even so, he went down to his grave a disappointed Man of Letters, unjustly regarding himself as a failure.

The man who, in 1920, MacCarthy, under the nom de guerre 'Affable Hawk', succeeded as causerie columnist ('Solomon Eagle') and literary editor of the New Statesman, was John Squire (1884-1958). The child of a single parent family--his father, a drunken veterinary surgeon of Plymouth, having walked out on them--John Collins Squire had to fend for himself. Coming down from St. John's College, Cambridge, where he had gone up on a history scholarship, he had, after a brief spell as a newspaper reporter in his native Plymouth, set forth to seek his literary fortune in London. He did well, contributing regular critical pieces and verse to Orage's New Age, establishing and editing the London Mercury in 1919, and wielding considerable power as chief book critic of the Observer. During the 1920s and 30s he was the leader of a clique of Georgian writers, who, violently opposed by Bloomsbury and the Sitwells, were christened with contumely the Squirearchy. But Gosse took him under his wing. In 1933 he was knighted. That was his apogee. Thereafter, it was downhill all the way. Alcoholism. Separation from his wife. A terrible drifting into the half-world of the semi-vagrant. Bombed out, buffed beneath the fall of unpaid bills, and bankrupt. All his books, manuscripts, and pictures which he had put into storage were lost when the store received a direct hit. This tragedy was, however, of little concern to him. For a long while now he had ceased to care about possessions. Even book-collecting had lost its savour. The object of directly needed support, it came from sympathetic women friends. A wild, decrepit figure, living on charity in a Surbiton hotel, calling himself the Sage of Surbiton, yet insisting upon being addressed as Sir John. Salvation of a kind came in commissions to read for Macmillan's and regular reviewing for the Illustrated London News, which brought in a small, but hardly adequate, sum of money. His last years, lived by invitation in cottages in Sussex and Kent, fed and wined by beneficent admirers, provided a sort of rural coda of tranquillity. A final irony: he had long expressed the wish to be buried in Devon. It was granted to him. Then, suddenly, the county borders were arbitrarily changed. Today his grave is in Cornwall.

One of our mightiest, and certainly latterday best known, Men of Letters was that practitioner of the Higher Journalism, Cyril Connolly (1903-1974), whose father was a military man turned militant malacologist. Educated at Eton and Balliol, whence, as the probable result of a prolonged Etonian adolescence, he came down with a third in history, prospects looked financially bleak--until, shedding his early homosexual yearnings, he married American money, in the shapely form of 19-year-old Jeannie Bakewell. There were to be in all three Mrs. Connollys, and a whole train of pretenders to the veil. He was not the easiest of men to whom to be married. Women who knew him too well discovered tears before, as well as after, bedtime. He had a streak of native coarseness, which matched his somewhat ranine cast of feature. His music of love was borborygmatically symphonic, culminating in a cacophony of nether-end eructation. Scarcely seductive. He was, moreover, exceedingly lazy. His second wife, Barbara Skelton, has recounted how he would, in one of his moods, lie in bed sucking the sheets and emitting a continual fog-homing of self-pitying groans. His personal enemies of promise were sloth, disguised as fastidious indolence; gluttony, disguised as epicurism; and bibulosity, masquerading as connoisseurship. Mean with his own money, he was perpetually and spectacularly extravagant with everybody else's. After Oxford, circumstance, which is to say Gabbitas & Thring, snared him into the acceptance of a job as tutor to a rich boy in Jamaica. He was not sorry when it was time to catch a Fyffe's banana boat home. Considerably more congenial was his next position as amanuensis to that old monster, the Anglo-American litterateur, Logan Pearsall Smith.

It was Desmond MacCarthy, at whose feet he sat, who gave Connolly his necessary kick-start, freelance reviewing for the New Statesman, a treadmill of weekly journalism from which he was only too glad to escape, when, in 1939, his wealthy friend and patron, Peter Watson, put up the funding for a new monthly magazine, Horizon. This publication did valiant work keeping the artistic flag prominently fluttering throughout the dark days of the Second World War, and miraculously surviving until 1950. Connolly had, in 1938, achieved his ambition to write a book that would last for ten years with his Enemies of Promise, which, incidentally, contains what is assuredly one of the best evocations of a Georgian childhood. His previous attempt, a novel, The Rockpool, a satire centred upon a colony of distinctly eccentric and lascivious expatriate artists on the French Riviera, had been less than a success. It was first published in Paris in 1936, being considered too indecent by the stringent official attitudes of the period for publication in this country, but eleven years later, when Mrs. Grundy's grasp had loosened, an edition was published in London in 1947. With his most characteristic work, The Unquiet Grave (1944), well anatomised as a 'plangent piece of angst-ridden hedonism', a compound of maximised hedonism and nostalgia in roughly equal portions, pseudonymously produced under the name of Palinurus, he made a triumphant killing out of, instead of being killed by, angst. In 1951 he joined Raymond Mortimer, who had succeeded Desmond MacCarthy as principal book reviewer, on the Sunday Times. And it was from this popular pulpit that he delivered his 23-year preachment to a faithful congregation of devout and devoted readers. Connolly finished up living quietly in a suburban road at the 'better end', naturally, of Eastbourne--'Eastbourne is the right place for a man of letters', whispered a smarmy John Betjeman--with wife No. 3, Deidre Craven, whom he had married in 1959, and his two dearly loved children, Cressida and Matthew. On November 26th, 1974, in St. Vincent's Clinic, Labroke Terrace, West London, he suffered a final cardiac crisis, and vanished with very little fuss into the eternal shadows of the evening colonnade. It did indeed seem like closing time in the gardens of the West.

Somewhat on the principle, I suppose, that any reasonably prolific author who survives into his eighth decade is dubbed by general consent a Grand Old Man, recently, to my surprise, I found myself being referred to as a Man of Letters. I have, it is true, been all my life involved in literature--books and bookish matters--so, although I have never ventured to think of myself as a 'lettered man', the description is not perhaps without a modicum of justification. I came to the profession of letters via the study of natural history, palaeontology, and medicine. There is sparse ancestral evidence of literary interest or gift. On the paternal side is a sequel of medico-legal practice. My great-grandfather, Dr. Richard Whittington-Egan, of Dublin, was the Irish Crown pathologist. On the distaff side, the pre-eminent talent was musical. My maternal great-grandfather, Jacob Zeugheer-Heermann, from Zurich, was the first conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He conducted for Paganini and Jenny Lind. He also introduced quartet music into England. Another maternal ancestor was the Irish judge, Sir Jonah Barrington. He did write. So did a great-aunt on my father's mother's side, May E Scott. She published, in 1921, The Diary of an 'Odd' Woman, and, incidentally, embraced an extended, and probably odd, relationship with the once celebrated novelist E. Temple Thurston (1879-1933).

Having been ploughed in one of my medical papers, I went to war, and upon my return drifted into journalism. Over the ensuing decades I traversed the accepted path of letters - reading, writing, reviewing, and collecting books. My sheaf of cuttings grew thick, my library gradually swelled to some 15,000 volumes. One lengthening shelf was occupied by books of which I was the author. The first couple, which were written way back in 1955 and 1957 respectively, were volumes of essays on my native Liverpool. These were followed in 1960 by a biography of my fellow-townsman, Richard Le Gallienne, The Quest for the Golden Boy, which I wrote in collaboration with Dr. Geoffrey Smerdon, who, before following his brother into medicine, had read classics at Oxford. The book was published by Martin Secker, the original publisher of D. H. Lawrence and Compton Mackenzie. Along the way I have written, somewhat in the style of the late William Roughead I like to think, a number of books of criminological interest, including a hefty study of that Victorian bogeyman supreme, Jack the Ripper. Now, within hailing distance of my eightieth year, I am about to publish another nineties' literary biography, that of that tragic, burnt-out comet figure, Stephen Phillips, feted once as the new Shakespeare. This is, surely, where, forty-three years ago, I came in.

Ou sont les hommes de lettres? The likes of John Betjeman, Raymond Mortimer, V. S. Pritchett, A. L. Rowse. Vanished, melted, like les neiges d'antan. Spyglass to eye, scanning the immediately impingent literary horizon, a mere straggle of isolate figures come into focus ... Peter Ackroyd ... Michael Holroyd ... John Gross ... A. N. Wilson ... But perhaps the aged practitioner of the old craft of letters always thought like this!
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Author:Whittington-Egan, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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