This 1924 Club choice wasn’t quite what I was expecting to kick off with. In my reading (both recreational and academic) I’ve often thought of the 1920s primarily as the time when lots of new things were beginning and developing in the literary world, but (of course) for some writers it was also the end of an era.
One of those writers was George Moore – known now I believe chiefly, perhaps solely, for Esther Waters, which I have not read. In 1924 he was in his 70s (he would live to 1933) and had dozens of books under his belt. As such, he can be forgiven quite a self-indulgent idea: Conversations in Ebury Street is essentially a collection of musings, literary and otherwise, some of which are dramatised as conversations with real people – including notables like Walter de la Mare and Edmund Gosse.
This book entered my mental tbr piles in 2004, and my actual tbr piles in 2011, so I was rather delighted finally to have it rise to the top of my reading list (and I hadn’t even realised it was published in 1924). I first became aware of the book in my first term at Magdalen, writing about Anne Bronte, where I discovered that he shared my high opinion of Agnes Grey:
If Anne had written nothing but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I should not have been able to predict the high place she would have taken in English letters. All I should have been able to say is: An inspiration that comes and goes like a dream. But, her first story, Agnes Grey, is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature. […] Agnes Grey is a prose narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress.
I actually recently re-read Agnes Grey and didn’t love it quite as much as I had in 2004 – more on that anon, if I remember enough about the re-read to write the post – but I still think it is an exquisite little book. That warm approval (‘the most perfect prose narrative in English literature’) made me want to make Moore’s acquaintance.
Well, I might have valued his view of Agnes Grey even higher if I’d known how difficult his approval was to secure. As far as I can tell, Moore does not like anything or agree with anyone. This can be quite fun to read about when he is tearing apart excerpts from Thomas Hardy or Tennyson; indeed, his literary and artistic analyses (though a bit self-congratulatory) make for good reading, even if the dialogues suggest that all Moore’s conversational opponents eventually recognise that he is right and they are wrong.
But what purpose, asked Mr. De La Mare, will be served by this critical examination of Mr. Hardy’s English? We are three men of letters, I answered, and it is our business to inquire why the public should have selected for their special adoration ill-constructed melodramas, feebly written in bad grammar, and why this mistake should have happened in the country of Shakespeare.
This is all good fun; you know I love books and books, and books about writers are just as enjoyable, if one is familiar with the writers. (I confess to skimming the section on Balzac, and those bits which quoted liberally in French.) Moore has an entertaining and discursive tone, wandering from idea to idea, a bit too pleased with himself and his theories – but that is forgiveable for a successful man in his 70s.
What is not so entertaining (and it would be remiss of me not to mention this) is his opinions on almost everything else. This makes up relatively little of the book, which is indeed focused on literary conversations, but sadly quite a lot of that comes at the beginning. His views are pretty repellent. He is openly racist, he doesn’t believe the working class should be taught to read (‘to bring about a renaissance of illiteracy, upon my word I would welcome a reawakening of theology’), and is generally against education:
every workman is aware that a boy released from school when he is fourteen is set upon learning a trade, but if he be kept at school till he is sixteen he very likely becomes part of the vagrant class.
Oh lordy me. It’s easy to be amused at stick-waving senilities like ‘an irreparable loss to our language is the second person singular’, and even when he suggests that learning French is a waste of time (despite then going on to say that Balzac is the greatest writer of prose fiction, ‘on this point there can be no difference of opinion’). But some of his opinions must have been widely reprehensible even in 1924.
I want to lace my recommendation of this book with a dozen caveats about things I don’t agree with, but I think they’d be obvious to anybody picking it up. So I’ll focus instead on what I did enjoy: it’s the sort of literary discussion that wouldn’t get published now, weaving from author to author, quoting line after line in analysis (particularly in creating a collection of ‘Pure Poetry’, being those written entirely without subjectivity, which was also published in 1924), and offering depth and knowledge in support. And, around this, hangs the history of Moore’s life and his ancestors’ lives, and the surroundings of Ebury Street. It’s a delightful setting in which to settle down, as though nestling in a deep armchair. It’s just a pity that it comes accompanied with so many unpleasant opinions outside the realm of literature.
So, I don’t think my first 1924 Club title is particularly representative of my feelings about the period, but it has been instructive to me to see the year not just as part of a wave of beginnings, but – as shouldn’t really have come as a surprise – also one which saw the end of some dynasties and forms, for better or worse.