The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

The Old Wive's TaleIt’s not long since I read my first book by Arnold Bennett – his detailed advice about how to acquire literary taste – and all of a sudden I’ve read two. I’ve voracious right now.

Actually, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) – which I have been erroneously calling The Old Wife’s Tale since forever – was the choice of somebody at my book group. I was quite enthusiastic to read a Bennett novel because of what a significant name he was in the early 20th century, and only a little less enthusiastic when I saw that it was over 600 pages of quite small font. And, boy, does he fill those pages. (In a great way, for the most part.)

Bennett’s thing is detail. I kind of knew that in advance, from Virginia Woolf’s famous essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown‘ – which I can’t now resist quoting, because it does set you up for the level that Bennett goes to:

He, indeed, would observe every detail with immense care. He would notice the advertisements; the pictures of Swanage and Portsmouth; the way in which the cushion bulged between the buttons; how Mrs. Brown wore a brooch which had cost three‐and‐ten‐three at Whitworth’s bazaar; and had mended both gloves—indeed the thumb of the left‐hand glove had been replaced. And he would observe, at length, how this was the non‐stop train from Windsor which calls at Richmond for the convenience of middle‐class residents, who can afford to go to the theatre but have not reached the social rank which can afford motor‐cars, though it is true, there are occasions (he would tell us what), when they hire them from a company (he would tell us which).

Now, Woolf was being rather snide about this. With her impressionistic style, it was inevitable that she would look down on this sort of Edwardian writing; she was of the generation that would break away from it. Fine. But I actually found I rather loved being immersed in this detail. The focus of it is two ordinary women: sisters, Constance and Sophia. They live in a house adjoining a shop run by their father, on a square in an ordinary Staffordshire town. During this upbringing, their whole lives are in these rooms and this town. They know everybody; everybody knows them. It is emphatically a novel of English life (at least at this juncture), and Bennett spares not the pen in writing about it:

Constance and Sophia, busy with the intense preoccupations of youth, recked not of such matters. They were surrounded by the county. On every side the fields and moors of Staffordshire, intersected by roads and lanes, railways, watercourses and telegraph-lines, patterned by hedges, ornamented and made respectable by halls and genteel parks, enlivened by villages at the intersections, and warmly surveyed by the sun, spread out undulating. And trains were rushing round curves in deep cuttings, and carts and waggons trotting and jingling on the yellow roads, and long, narrow boats passing in a leisure majestic and infinite over the surface of the stolid canals; the rivers had only themselves to support, for Staffordshire rivers have remained virgin of keels to this day. One could imagine the messages concerning prices, sudden death, and horses, in their flight through the wires under the feet of birds.

In this world, Bennett describes every detail of their life. Such detail that it seems impossible to summarise, and also someone seems impossible that it could be fiction. Were we only to hear about (say) the death of their father, their marriages, their turmoils and victories, then it would feel plotted. As it is, we hear about the way in which they walk from room to room, the customers whom the assistants respect and those for whom they will not stand up, the manner of the tea tray and the teacups. Everything is here; every moment.

There are, however, a few moments of major event in the novel – even of sensation. Somehow this doesn’t feel ill-measured alongside the tone of Bennett’s writing, though by rights it should – perhaps the occasional extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary is simply another element of realism. One I shan’t mention, but is very interestingly used. The first such moment is Sophia absconding.

She runs off with a local charmer – and leaves the pages of the novel maybe only a sixth of the way through (so I thought). We are left to watch Constance grow older, marry, have a son, and continue to live next to the shop. It was a beautifully told story – the emotions Bennett describes of mother, daughter, sister, and wife seem (to one who is admittedly none of these things) to be perfectly judged and very effectively portrayed. All of it feels real.

Bennett – I did not realise beforehand – is very amusing. In the hands of Hardy, The Old Wives’ Tale would be gut-wrenching. This is not a comic novel, but without the levity of his style, it would have become a tragedy. Constance and Sophia both suffer a fair amount, and yet Bennett doesn’t leave the reader miserable. And, of course, I forgot to note down any examples. He doesn’t go for bon mots or witticisms, per se, but takes an authorial step back to tease or raise an eyebrow at his characters. It’s wonderful, and made me laugh out loud a few times – the only instance I can find isn’t the finest, but it made me laugh. Mr Povey is shop manager, and his way with labels is not to be underestimated: ‘It is not too much to say that Mr Povey, to whom heaven had granted a minimum share of imagination, had nevertheless discovered his little parcel of imagination in the recesses of being, and brought it effectively to bear on tickets’.

I have said little of the second half of the novel. And that is because I would have advised to Bennett that he cut it altogether. Around the halfway mark, we are flung back to the moment Sophia departed the novel – and we follow her instead. We abandon the ageing Constance in favour of the once-again-young Sophia, and see her life in Paris. As a separate novel, it would be quite interesting – and the contrast between the sisters’ destinies is doubtless well orchestrated – but I should have much preferred it to be summarised in a page or two. I don’t think I have much patience with novels which cover the same timespan more than once, and I certainly prefer a short novel to a long one – had The Old Wive’s Tale *actually* been The Old Wife’s Tale and only looked at Constance’s life, I should have liked it all the more. (But I will concede that this opinion was not shared by anybody at book group, and thus I may well be in the minority.)

So, I shall certainly return to Bennett when I’m in the mood for this level of expert detail. That won’t be every week, nor yet every month, but it might be every year. I’m glad to have finally made the acquaintance of one of the most notable names of 20th-century writing – and to have realised something of his worth away from the unjustly negative reputation he might have been lumbered with.

When The Floods Came by Clare Morrall

I am lucky enough to receive quite a few review books in the post. Some of these I snap up, some of these end up sitting in the living room for a while – and my housemate Melissa nabbed (with my full blessing and encouragement) a novel called When The Floods Came. Even better, she wrote me a review of it! Here it is – do make her feel welcome please.

When the Floods CameThere’s a certain trend in literature these days that plays on our insecurities about what we really know to be true. Everyone loves a good whodunnit where the killer is revealed at the end, or an action adventure where the good guys win; but the fact is that in real life juries disagree on who actually did it and no-one is quite sure who the good guys were in the first place. Reading this book on a day when I’m feeling disjointed and confused about whether the world makes any sense at all may have been a good thing – I’m not sure I could have stomached something with the quiet certainty of Narnia or the inevitable outcome of Pride and Prejudice.

I don’t know enough literary history to know whether authors have always exploited our insecurities; I do know that there are many variations of the dystopic novel on bookstore shelves at the moment, and this one fits firmly into that trend. There’s the introduction to a new world with the unsettling mix of familiar and unfamiliar; the gradual piecing together of how our world fell apart and this new world was built on it; the lack of clarity about who is really in control and whether or not they’re on the right side. This world has been shaped by many of the things we’re afraid of today: environmental change, market forces, uncontrollable disease, ill-considered government policies. The UK has been decimated by epidemic, quarantined by the outside world, flattened by storms, cut off from all but online contact with the rest of the world and the occasional aid package dropped by drone. It’s a world where education and high-level technology – our traditional markers of progress – provide no protection from danger and deprivation.

Against this backdrop live the Polenskys. The parents are transplants from an age we’re familiar with, activists who welcomed decisive action on climate change and fought corporate domination by Amazon (it’s rare for a novel to mention a company by name!) They are concerned about their children’s education, behaviour and values as much as their security. The kids are independent and ambitious, exploring freely across the territory around their home, working online for Chinese companies who pay them in education and medical security, happy to cooperate with government rules that their parents find stifling. They’re surprisingly well-rounded given their tiny social circle in a world where people are few and people under twenty are pretty much extinct. The family has their secret (which is hardly a secret given that they’ve no-one around them to hide it from): little daughter Lucia was a waif found by the roadside and adopted in place of their own little one who did not survive. She doesn’t know this but you get the feeling that she can feel it, and needs an increased level of reassurance that she really does belong.

Their secluded family life, in an area of Birmingham where no-one else lives anymore, is about to change as 22-year-old narrator Roza plans her wedding to a work colleague she’s never met in person. Hector is a part of Roza’s life that never fully materialises, appearing as a hologram or in voice messages and nervously awaited in the flesh; a joker who allows only occasional glimpses of his real self to show through. The wedding will involve a trip to Brighton for the whole family – a first outing in two decades to a place that really is inhabited.

But before any of this expected change can occur, the family is disrupted by the arrival of Aashay, a charmer who moves into a neighbouring flat that has lain empty for years and who refuses to provide an explanation for himself. He clearly holds some attraction for Roza and I thought at first that it would be one of those (*annoying*) novels where a hot guy who turns up out of the blue and disrupts all her safe and sensible plans. But that isn’t quite the way it goes, and the family’s relationship with Aashay continues to fluctuate between friendship and distrust.

Aashay opens the family’s eyes to a world where people meet and interact in person outside the rules. The prospect holds both interest and fear as they contemplate the possibility of stepping outside the safe boundaries they’ve lived within for so long. In fact, their trip out to a clandestine fair reveals pretty much what you would expect: there are both things to be gained and there are risks. For the most part, it’s unclear whether the people they encounter are to be trusted or not and what their motives are for being welcoming, but what does become apparent is that all these people are there for different reasons, and there is not one guiding force uniting them. It’s just another way of doing life in the harsh reality they live in. If there is danger in it, the danger ultimately is not due to the people they encounter there or the fact that the fair is technically illegal, but simply in being more exposed than they have been before.

There is a twist at the end; it’s neither predictable nor a major surprise. You get the feeling that the author could have chosen to end the book in one of several ways. Not all the questions are answered, but most of them probably didn’t need to be. I appreciated that there is some closure, that you do end up knowing who was and who wasn’t to be trusted. I’m not sure that’s a realistic outcome in this scenario, but it’s a nice change.

There’s one issue in particular addressed in this book that I’d like to look into further, around entitlement to children. It’s an unusual feature of this dystopia that infertility is wide-spread, and children are a rare commodity. Child abduction and trafficking flourish because of the longing many have for a family of their own rather than for the purpose of exploitation, which means that the attraction strangers show to little Lucia is concerning for a very different reason that it would be to us today.

In such a context, Lucia’s adoption by a family who already had children of their own walks a difficult line between the admirable, in rescuing and caring for an abandoned child, and the selfish, in taking for themselves what so many others wanted to have. When questions are raised about who Lucia’s birth family could be, the Polenskys’ instinct is to run, ostensibly to protect her, but also to protect themselves from being exposed as imposter parents and from losing her.

Although it isn’t yet so extreme, the place of children in our society has changed a lot over a few decades. It’s not that long since having children was a necessity to parents who needed to ensure an income and support for themselves in their old age, or simply an unavoidable reality in the days before contraception. Today, with reliable contraception and varied fertility treatments, children are seen as a lifestyle choice and as a luxury that many feel they cannot afford.

Neither of these approaches are completely unselfish – nor should they be, since children deserve to be wanted. Sometimes, though, the degree of choice we have over how, when and what children we will have can be unsettling. How do we ensure that we continue to value our children without turning them into a commodity? I haven’t reached any answers, nor does the novel provide any, but it is a question we would do well not to ignore if we want to make sure our children continue to be welcomed, wanted and treated with respect just as they are.

Tea or Books? #22: set in the time vs written in the time, and 84, Charing Cross Road vs Howards End is on the Landing

Tea or Books logoHistorical fiction and books-about-books are the themes for episode 22 of Tea or Books? – and we have a LOT to say on these topics. And we hope you do too! Let us know your thoughts for each category. And I hope you enjoy the little moment that I left in before the theme tune… sorry, Rachel, I couldn’t resist.

You can visit our iTunes page or download via your app of choice. WHY NOT even rate and review us, if you’re looking for a way to pass the time. And you can now even follow Rachel on Twitter, as she has joined us all on social media!

Here are the books and authors we talk about in today’s episode. (Btw, if the episodes are generally too loud or quiet, let me know and I’ll see what I can do with audio adjustments.)

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins
Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Thank Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Mrs Harter by E.M. Delafield
Virginia Woolf
Stella Gibbons
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Zadie Smith
The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice
A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Sarah Waters
When We Were Alive by C.J. Fisher
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff
Q’s Legacy by Helen Hanff
Arthur Quiller-Couch
Letters From New York by Helene Hanff
Marilynne Robinson
T.S. Eliot
Roald Dahl
Iris Murdoch
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill
Counting My Chickens by Deborah Devonshire
Jane Austen
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
Stet by Diana Athill
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
When I was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
The Shelf by Phyllis Rose
My Year of Reading Proust by Phyllis Rose
Browsings by Michael Dirda
The Love Child by Edith Olivier
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

StuckinaBook’s almost-weekend miscellany

Yes, it’s a Friday, but here are four things I wanted to share with you…


1.) I was very excited to be a guest on the Mookse and the Gripes podcast talking about the wonderful Tove Jansson. You know how much I love Tove Jansson. Luckily Trevor does too – and it was a real blast to chat with him. AND so nice to be on a podcast that I don’t have to edit! Listen to it here, or via podcast apps etc.

2.) Quiz yourself on literary heroes over at OxfordWords… I had great fun making up names.

3.) It’s always wonderful when somebody else discovers Miss Hargreaves – especially when they write a review as enthusiastic and fab as Ali. Go and be persuaded!

4.) It’s French writing week at Vulpes Libris. Which has become curiously poignant with the terrible news from Nice. It feels odd, with that horror going on, to share a book review – but I am of that belief that maintaining the good things in life in the face of evil is as much a defence as most of us can manage. So, please don’t think we’re being deliberately insensitive by continuing the week – which finishes with Strange Gardens (Effroyables Jardins) by Michel Quint.

The Bird of Night by Susan Hill

My theme of paperbacks-I-took-to-Edinburgh continues; on the way back, I read most of The Bird of Night (1972) by Susan Hill, and then finished it later that weekend.

The Bird of Night

I’ve read quite a few of Hill’s novellas over the years, though mostly the ones that have come out more recently – so it was interesting to see how she was writing 40+ years earlier in her career. There is even a very young, quite morose, picture of her on the back of my 1976 Penguin paperback, when Hill was presumably around my age. Unlike me, though, Hill had already published six novels by the time The Bird of Night hit the shelves.

The opening sets the tone of the novel:

Once, during the summer we spent at Kerneham, Francis locked himself in the church for a whole night. I found him there, at five o’clock the next morning, huddled up beneath the pulpit. It was cold. He could not feel safe anywhere else, he said, and then he began to weep, as so often happened, and shouted at me through his weeping, to understand the truth, that he deserved to be locked up, why would I not admit that and see to it, why had I driven him to do it for himself?

That is what I remembered this morning but I do not know why one bubble should break upon the surface rather than another. I should be content that I remember.

Francis is Francis Croft, a renowned and garlanded poet (though Hill wisely gives us, as far as I can recall, no lines of his poetry – his greatness is not tested on the page); the narrator is Harvey Lawson. He is describing their relationship from the distance of years – where he is the protector of Croft’s reputation. Or, rather, he keeps mostly schtum about Croft and insists that there are no papers to share (though there are). And his reflections take him back to their shared history: they meet incidentally, and develop an intense and restless friendship. It is intense chiefly because of Croft’s mental illness and descents into madness.

And this is the trajectory the novel follows. Somehow it is hard to describe the plot; it is more a portrait of a friendship (or more? It is never clear). But the faint structure matters little, and that is because of the strength of Hill’s writing here. I always think she’s at her best when she is looking in detail at the minutaie of relationships between individuals, or characters’ introspections and self-analysis (and how rare is that? Usually that’s where authors fall down). Here is Harvey describing looking after Francis during his most troubled times:

But the cycle of Francis’s madness was never a regular or predictable one. I had prepared myself for days, perhaps weeks, spent closeted in that dismal flat by candlelight, having to comfort and support him through his deepest apathy and depression. Certainly, for the next two days he stayed in bed or sat slouched in a chair looking as though he were half drugged, his eyes blank and all his attention turned inward upon himself. He hardly spoke to me and when he did answer a persistent question, it was with a monosyllable. He would not shave or eat or read, but only sat up once in a while and muttered to his own hands. “It’s all wrong, I tell you, it’s all wrong.” Once I caught him staring at himself in a mirror, his face very close to the glass. He looked puzzled. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced,” he said to his reflection. “I do not know your face. Should I know your face? Is this a good party?”

Much of the novella follows this pattern – a detailed, nuanced, and interesting depiction of mental health and a troubled friendship.

Of the many ways in which Hill writes fiction, I think this might be my favourite – something like an extended character study. I have read somewhere that Hill doesn’t rate this amongst her best novels, but I would put it up with In the Springtime of the Year as containing the best of her writing that I’ve read.

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

Delta WeddingAnother book from Shiny New Books Issue 10 – Delta Wedding (1945) by Eudora Welty. Truth be told, I came away not knowing quite what to make of it. I certainly prefer her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, but I think Delta Wedding is a tour de force of a different variety.

See how I battled to make sense of it over at Shiny New Books

Delta Wedding might win the award for the most beautiful book I’ve read for this issue of Shiny New Books – as an object, I mean, though the term can also apply to the writing. Along with the other new reprints from Apollo (an imprint of Head of Zeus), the paper quality, choice of image, and interesting directional lines on the cover, come together to make a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Luckily the inside of the book lives up to the exterior.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was LostYou know that I love an NYRB Classic, and lament how often their beautiful editions aren’t available this side of the pond – so it was lovely to get a review copy of More Was Lost by Eleanor Perenyi. It’s a poignant, warm, captivating memoir. But read the introduction last. Promise me you’ll read the introduction later.

Here’s the start of my review; read the rest over at Shiny New Books.

If you’re anything like me, you might be unfamiliar with the political dynamics of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the years leading up to the Second World War. They form the backdrop to this involving and poignant memoir that manages to combine the personal and the global in an extraordinary way: More Was Lost, published in 1946 and now clothed in the loveliness of a NYRB Classics edition.

Tea or Books? #21: children narrators vs adult narrators, and Shakespeare comedies vs tragedies

Tea or Books logoShakespeare! That’s right, we’re getting very classy and/or GCSE English in our discussion of his comedies and tragedies – following a fairly haphazard chat about child narrators vs adult narrators. This is what happens when Rachel only tells me the topic we’re going to cover mere moments before we start recording.

We’re always on the look-out for suggestions for future episodes (srsly, we’re running out) – so let us know in the comments if you have any thoughts. You’ll definitely get a name check – unlike poor Faith, whose suggestion of child narrators we forget to properly appreciate. Thanks Faith! I thought Rachel probably hadn’t come up with the topic herself.

Here are the books and authors we talk about in this episode:

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
This is Sylvia by Sandy Wilson [NB not the title I said!]
The Old Wive’s Tale by Arnold Bennett
Literary Taste: How to Form It by Arnold Bennett
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Room by Emma Donoghue
The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend
Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson
Enid Blyton
William series by Richmal Crompton
Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Othello by William Shakespeare
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

Literary Taste (how to form it) by Arnold Bennett

I love that this sort of book was once published – and not only published but, as my copy suggests, owned by the 23rd Hartlepools Troop of Scouts. I do hope they enjoyed it. Who knows what journey it then went on before I picked it up in Edinburgh?

Literary Taste

Literary Taste: how to form it was published in 1909, though there was later a revised edition by Frank Swinnerton in the 1930s, according to Wikipedia. My copy is undated but is evidently from around 1909 – because it doesn’t have the extra section Swinnerton added (more on that later), and, well, because the book is obviously from that period. One of my specialist talents now is being able to date an early 20th-century hardback to within a few years. It doesn’t come in handy all that often.

Bennett had only been publishing novels for about a decade when this book came out, but they included big-hitters and his name was already at the forefront of literary reputation – though it would take a tumble later, when he became more or less synonymous with the stale Edwardians (thanks partly to Virginia Woolf’s influential essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’). I’ve yet to read any of his fiction, though my book group is doing The Old Wive’s Tale next month, but I’ve read quite a bit of his reviewing and journalism. He’s certainly got a passion for books, and the sort of determined I’m-just-like-you persona that is rivalled only by Jennifer Lawrence.

This book is addressed to the person who enjoys reading and wants to be well-read, but doesn’t quite know where to start. Bennett is almost absurdly precise in where you should start (it is, apparently, the essays of Charles Lamb), but before this he says things about literature that echo down the decades to get a rousing ‘amen!’ from all of us.

Literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. I am extremely anxious to avoid rhetorical exaggerations. I do not think I am guilty of one in asserting that he who has not been ‘presented the freedom’ of literature has not wakened up out of his prenatal sleep. He is merely not born. He can’t see; he can’t hear; he can’t feel, in any full sense. He can only eat his dinner.

Love it.

The aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it i to be alive, to intensify one’s capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours. It is to change utterly one’s relations with the world.

Preach, Bennett!

Well, having said that, I think it can also just be to amuse the hours of leisure. I don’t think Bennett would think much of me, literature-wise. For one thing, he’s no big fan of the academic study of literature. For another, he’s not very impressed by people who don’t start with 16th-century literature – and, I’ll be honest, it’s been quite a while since I grabbed a copy of anything from before the first world war. Well, except Literary Taste, of course.

Bennett writes very interestingly about why a classic is a classic, who decides it, and how choices in reading can make or break one’s literary education. All of it feels fresh today, and are debates that still rage. But Bennett isn’t just talking hypotheticals: he wants to get down to brass tacks about actual books to read. Not only Charles Lamb (though emphatically him) – Bennett compiles a list of essential books, and prices them out as well. It’s nice that he is aware of financial limitations, and deliberately omits some authors whose works are not available in good, reasonable editions in 1909. It’s also so unexpected to see these sorts of balance sheets in a popular literary text.

This was apparently pretty influential. Wikipedia has kindly put them all in a list, which you can examine closely; it also includes books from the post-1909 period of literature that Swinnerton added in his 1937 revision. I am more comfortable ground in this years, of course, and it’s nice to see people like A.A. Milne included – and unexpected to see Stella Benson’s The Little World, which I haven’t heard of despite being (I suspect) one of relatively few people today to have read more than one book by Stella Benson. And there’s a Compton Mackenzie recommendation to follow up after my recent review of Poor Relations.

I’ll admit, Bennett’s choices leave me feeling like I have very little literary taste – and also wondering how he’d time to read all these authors and books by the time he was 42. As he concludes the list (which includes brilliantly sassy moments like ‘Names such as those of Charlotte Yonge and Dinah Craik are omitted intentionally’):

When you have read, wholly or in part, a majority of these three hundred and thirty-five volumes, with enjoyment, you may begin to whisper to yourself that your literary taste is formed; and you may pronounce judgment on modern works which come before the bar of your opinion in the calm assurance that, though to err is human, you do at any rate know what you are talking about.

Well, not yet, Arnold. And probably never. Somehow I find it more fascinating to read books from 1909 about how people formed literary taste – and this was certainly a great, interesting, unusual read.