When writers attack

We at Jot 101 are always looking for new examples of bilious, scornful or downright libellous remarks. A number of collections have been scoured and selections made, but in Matthew Parris’s Scorn with extra bile ( 1998) we seem to have found a truly impressive collection of insults, including a very well known one from my own uncle, the first Baron Riddlesden ( aka Denis Healey ).

Some of the better insults are, alas, too long for inclusion, but here are some by writers that are equally entertaining, but pithier. There is also a hilarious semi-parody of the somewhat overrated children’s writer A.A. Milne by Dorothy Parker (photo above).

…an umbrella left behind at a picnic.

George Moore on W. B. Yeats.

A church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an eggshell, a bit of string.

H.G. Wells on a book by Henry James.

A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tried out a few of the old proven ‘ sure-fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local colour to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.

William Faulkner on Mark Twain

I wish her characters would talk a little less like the heroes and heroines of police reports

George Eliot on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir shop style and bottled ships and necklaces of romanticist clichés.

Vladimir Nabokov on Joseph Conrad

Tell me, when you are alone with Max, does he take off his face and reveal his mask ?

Oscar Wilde on Max Beerbohm.

Continue reading

John Symonds’ on E. V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey

Found in a paperback reprint ( 1952) of Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey is a typewritten carbon copy of a letter to the translator from John Symonds, the biographer of Aleister Crowley,  dated 22nd September 1961. Alongside it is Rieu’s handwritten reply to Symonds from his home at Hurst Avenue in north London, dated six days later.

Such items are rare. Editors rarely reply to letters from readers. I once received a very long typed reply from the poet and writer on art, Edward Lucie- Smith, not long after his Penguin anthology of contemporary poetry came out. I can’t recall exactly what I objected to, but I think it was something to do with the fact that Lucie-Smith had had the audacity to include a comparatively young poet — Geoffrey Hill—while excluding a veteran of the Auden generation, Geoffrey Grigson. I must have made a cogent case because Lucie-Smith’s friendly reply was much longer than my original letter to him.

John Symonds Crowley biography

Symonds’ letter to Rieu turned on an objection, not to the quality of the translation, but to the character of Odysseus. Here is the letter in full:-

Dear Sir,

‘ Some years ago I bought your versions of THE ODYSSEY and THE  ILIAD, and put them on a shelf beside my bed, intending one night to begin reading them, and thus fill a literary gap. And there they remained until this month when I took down THE ODYSSEY, removed the paper wrapper, felt the fine blue cloth binding, gazed at the clear print and began reading.

Splendid and immortal yarn! But what a barbarian Odysseus is. He is like a comic-strip superman of the Daily Mirror. And then I came to Book XXII which you describe in your introduction as ‘ the magnificent climax ‘. What is magnificent about it ? The cruelty of Odysseus appalled me. Merciless butcher, without charity! He won’t even spare the tearful women. The horror described on page 324 made me feel sick and I flung the book into the fireplace.

I shall apply myself, somewhat warily, to THE ILIAD. 

Yours truly,

John Symonds.

Continue reading

Bluff Your Way in Literature 2

A second helping.

In many ways, Martin Seymour-Smith’s Bluff Your Way in Literature (1966) can be seen as an opportunity for the author to satirise or criticise the work of writers he felt were overrated or even worthless. His opinions are inevitably heavy with irony.

We have remarked in an earlier  Jot that Seymour-Smith was critical of John Fowles, Muriel Spark, C.P.Snow, Malcolm Bradbury and Ted Hughes and that he regarded such generally admired figures as Auden, Pinter , Margaret Attwood and Tom Stoppard as overrated. On the other hand he wasn’t afraid of promoting an unfashionable and controversial individual like Wyndham Lewis, whose reputation had been in the doldrums for decades, or giving a lift to Thomas Hardy, Laura Riding or Rayner Heppenstall.

In an age of political correctness the opinions of such a maverick should be cherished rather than condemned and so in this second and final on Seymour-Smith Jot we ‘ll look at some of his other verdicts on writers or movements in literature, some of which might seem rather quaint or outdated today. 

Vomit, menstruation &c.

‘ In poems and novels, these are not only in but are obligatory. However, do not show bad taste and talk about them yourself. Preserve the kind of decency that is expected at parties and gatherings, while praising the fearless and ‘tough’ ( a key word) indecency of modern literature, which is a ‘ major breakthrough’.

All—not merely some—poems and novels, if they are to be major, must be about sickness and mental breakdown. This first became evident from the kind iof poems the poetry critic and poetry editor A. Alvarez began printing in The Observer some years ago: a good example was one which dealt with the theme of miscarriage in the bathroom. Badly written, filthy, insulting and hysterical, with no justification provided for its unpleasantness, it was just the kind of verse that is nowadays needed for magazines.

Continue reading

S.P.B.Mais meets Sir Hugh Walpole

Hugh Walpole was once one of the most popular and richest novelists in Britain. Today he is hardly read, though he still has his fans; in 2020 The Hugh Walpole Society was founded in an attempt to resurrect his reputation. Back in the early thirties, when Walpole’s star was at its highest, the journalist and broadcaster S. P. B. Mais ( see previous Jots), while rambling in the Lake District, popped in to talk to him at Brackenburn, his ‘ small stone house’ on the edge of Derwentwater, not far from Keswick. This is the impression of Walpole that Mais published in his Weekends in England(1933).

S P B Mais (1885 – 1975) with wife Doris

‘A most charming host I have seldom met. He took me all over his house, muttering , “ I hope I’m not boring you, “ as he turned out treasure after treasure for my inspection. There was a thirteenth century missal, exquisitely painted. “I got that from an old man in Carlisle, “ he said. There were the holograph manuscripts  of “ The Fortunes of Nigel “, with scarcely a correction, the proof sheets of the same novel with many corrections, not only by Scott, but also by Ballantyne, there were letters from Charlotte Bronte showing how deeply she loved her husband, letters from Thackeray showing how he disliked Dickens, especially in his relation to America, there were very rare early editions of Kipling and Bennett, and first editions  of every Victorian and Georgian novelist, some glorious pictures of C. J. Holmes, Sickert, Bone, Grant and most of the moderns.

Altogether a house of taste.

Then we were taken over the garden and shown the bee-hives and the superb view over the woods of Manesty to the lake.

But the thing that remains most in my mind beyond the lovely pictures and beautifully bound and rare books is the quality of Mr Walpole’s voice.

It was full of genuine friendliness and charm…’

Continue reading

Reviewers reviewed…

imagesFor critics I care the five hundred thousandth part of the tithe of a half farthing.

Charles Lamb.

A good writer isn’t per se a good critic anymore than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender

Jim Bishop

A great deal of contemporary criticism reads to me like a man saying, “ Of course I do not like green cheese; I am very fond of brown sherry.”’

  1. K. Chesterton

I never read a book before reviewing it. It prejudices me so.

Sydney Smith

There’s only one thing to do with critics: bathe them in hot tar. If I listened to them I’d have been in the madhouse years ago.

Brendan Behan (above)

Unless the bastards have the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore them.

John Steinbeck

Writers’ ripostes.

Denise Robins

Once told Barbara Cartland she had written 87 books. ‘That’s nothing’, Cartland replied, ‘ I’ve written 145.’  ‘I see’, said Robins, one a year’.

Dorothy Parker

When a woman she didn’t like said, ‘ I can’t bear fools,’ Parker replied, ‘ Apparently, your mother didn’t have the same difficulty’.

Gore Vidal.

After he had heard that Truman Capote had died, remarked, ‘Good career move’.

Noel Coward

When an intellectually challenged actor had blown his brains out he said, ‘ He must have been an incredibly good shot’.

Samuel Beckett.

During his teaching days in Belfast the headmaster told him that his pupils were ‘the cream of Ulster’. Yes, rich and thick!’ he replied.

Dame Edith Evans

When informed that Nancy Mitford was staying at a friend’s house to finish a book, she said, ‘Really? So what’s she reading?’

Sexist remarks from authors.

Norman Mailer

In a speech in Berkeley California in 1972, he made a comment that hardly endeared him to the women’s movement: ‘ A little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul’. Continue reading

Mrs A. C. Dawson Scott and her Cornish writers’ retreats. ‘The  bungalow for a novel ‘.

Jot 101 Bungalow Richardson Odle picIt is in The Last of Spring, one of Rupert Croft-Cooke’s many autobiographical volumes that one finds an account of the author’s experience of renting one of the Cornish bungalows built for writers by the eccentric spiritual medium and author, Mrs A.C. Dawson Scott, in the early 1930s.

Croft-Cooke, armed with an advance of £20 from his publisher, Chapman Hall, following the success of his first novel was seeking a cottage in the country that would afford him the solitude and remoteness he needed to write a follow-up. He found one by answering an advert placed in a literary weekly by the novelist Dawson Scott, now better known as the founder of P.E.N. She herself lived in a holiday bungalow near Padstow and had had the idea of buying some land south of Trevose Head to build more bungalows which she would rent out to writers who needed a retreat.

The bungalows duly became a colony she called ‘ Constantine ‘, after the nearby ruins of a church and a Holy Well,  aimed at providing accommodation for those attending the Cornish Art and Literature Season in July and August, when she charged £5 a week to tenants. Luckily, Dawson Scott, nicknamed ‘ Sappho’ by her family, charged Croft Cooke the off-season rate of only £1 a week. Meeting his landlady in her London flat to arrange the tenancy was a daunting experience for the novelist. He found

‘ a forceful woman, decisive and grimly affable, obviously a born organizer. I never knew her in Cornwall, yet through vivid descriptions by Noel Coward, who was one of her early paying guests, and others, I see her in fancy in her Cornish setting, square, tanned, blatantly healthy, wearing a djibba, with the wet sand oozing up between her toes, and her hair undisciplined in the breeze, a woman with a purpose. ‘ Continue reading

A Maggs Catalogue for 1909

As we on Jot 101 have remarked before, the catalogues of antiquarian booksellers are often a reflection of the tastes or fashion of the time among collectors. Books which today might be downgraded for various reasons were once highly prized, especially in first edition form. Writers who were once the height of fashion are now almost forgotten, while firsts by ‘ classic ‘ authors, though often sought after over many decades, do not always retain their monetary value in real terms. The catalogue issued by Maggs Brothers in 1909, which we recently unearthed in the archives at Jot HQ, is a case in point. Although the craze for ‘modern  first editions ‘  had not really taken off , books by ‘ modern ‘ writers like  William Morris and Oscar Wilde were beginning to be seen as modern classics and were priced accordingly. Classic ‘ Romantic ‘ authors, like Keats and Shelley, have always kept their value, but the prices of  works by Charles Lamb have dipped in real terms since 1909, mainly due to the baleful influence of the critic Frank R. Leavis. The rise and rise of Jane Austen since 1909, mainly due to various TV and film adaptations, is probably unique among English novelists. In contrast compare the prices of work by George Meredith, then at the height of his popularity, but hardly read at all today.


Jot 101 Maggs catalogue 1909 cover 001


Books on certain sports have also become more sought after today. Not surprisingly, there is nothing on football or rugby, which were comparatively modern in origin, but plenty of rare material on cricket, horse-racing, angling, boxing and hunting. Of these only books on tennis and cricket, which are perhaps more popular today, seem to have increased in value.


With such a catalogue sometimes it’s good to play ‘Fantasy Book Buying ‘. This involves going back in time and seeking out bargains that one might have bought with our present day knowledge. Let’s start with Oscar Wilde. The great playwright and gay icon had only been dead for nine years, so wasn’t as appreciated as he is now. Continue reading

Conscious and unconscious erotica

Mark twain pic

Some writers knowingly produced erotica; others unknowingly published smutty material. Here are a few examples


Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556), Sonnetti Lussuriosi(1524)

The Sonnetti Lussuriosiof this poet, gossip and writer of witty plays was a collection of verses and erotic drawings that, like the Kama Sutra, demonstrated positions for sexual intercourse. Though the book proved very popular, it earned the wrath of the Pope, an erstwhile patron of Aretino, along with Emperor Charles V. Aretino lost his papal patronage, but he also was taken to task by the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dr John Donne, who objected that some of the sexual positions were missing.

Norman Douglas (1868 – 1952), Some Limericks(1928)

The author of Old Calabria and South Wind, also compiled Venus in the Kitchen, a collection of aphrodisiac recipes, and the privately printed Some Limericks. The latter, which has been described as ‘ irreverent, scatological and erotic ‘ , was accompanied by ‘ scholarly ‘ notes that sent up the sort of po-faced critical apparatus so beloved of Ph D candidates.

W S. Gilbert ( 1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan ( 1842 – 1900) . ‘ The Sod’s Opera’.

The humorous double act that gave us so many wonderful operettas also composed The Sod’s Opera , among the characters of which are Count Tostoff and the Brothers Bollox ( a pair of hangers on) and Scrotum, a wrinkled old retainer. Oddly, there are no records of a public performance, though it would be refreshing if some village Opera society put on their version of it.


Anais Nin ( 1903 -77 ) The Delta of Venus.

The friend of pornographer Henry Miller got together with Nin and an army of hard up writers to form a sort of porn factory which turned out several erotic works, some commissioned by an anonymous tycoon. Ms Nin was also a novelist and a prolific diarist.

Felix Salten aka Siegmund Salzmann ( 1869 – 1949) Josefine Mutzenbacher.

The apparently wholesome author of Bambi(1929), a children’s story which recounted the struggle of an orphaned deer, which was later immortalized by Walt Disney, also penned an extremely well received erotic novel that painted a very accurate picture of  the life of a prostitute among the petit bourgeoisie in fin de siecleVienna. Today it is regarded as equal in status in the German-speaking word to our own Fanny Hill. Continue reading

John Betjeman and a Home Counties Anthology


Home counties anthology cover pic 001Even today, thirty six years after his death, John Betjeman can still surprise us with his wisdom and original mind. In 1947, less than two years after the end of a war that brought the prospect of a radiation death to the innocent citizens of Great Britain, destroyed some of finest Georgian terraces in London and Bath, that peppered landmark buildings, including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Dulwich Art Gallery with shrapnel, and pock-marked the pastoral landscapes of Surrey, Middlesex and Essex,  the editors at Methuen asked the rising poet of the suburbs to provide an Introduction to their new anthology by someone called J. D. Mortimer ( who he?) on the Home Counties.

Betjeman duly obliged and what he wrote is redolent of his unique perspective on southern England. A writer  of an earlier generation—a Walter-de-la Mare, a Blunden, a S. P. B.Mais say—would have come up with the usual nostalgic picture  of the Home Counties as places of elm-shaded inns, haystacks, cricket on the green and dusty lanes, and left it at that, but Betjeman while regretting that much of Middlesex and parts of Surrey were now unrecognisable from their nineteenth and early twentieth century appearance, thanks to the depredations of the car,   , and the presence in the sky of the aeroplane,  suggests that the melancholy induced by such realisations could be assuaged by an anthology that celebrates the appeal of the suburbs

The Home Counties of the L.P.T.B. and the Southern Electric and Green Line buses, of Ritz cinemas and multiple stores and trim building estates must have this literature. There has been little poetry of the suburbs, possibly because they are so raw and new. But since the suburbs  are there for as long as atomic energy will allow them, and since there are still poets , they will be eventually turned into poetry so that we can enjoy urban Gidea Park as once Hood enjoyed countrified Epping. Already much prose has appeared which has glorified the suburbs into something beautiful—Gissing, Machen, W.B.Maxwell were pioneers of suburban descriptive prose. Suburban social life at the end of the last century has been immortalised by George and Weedon Grossmith in the Diary of a Nobody.
Continue reading

Did you know that…about writers ?

Jot 101 Did you know Tennyson picAdvances


Barbara Taylor Bradford received a £17 million advance from Harper Collins in 1992 for her next three novels


Stephen King was offered an advance of £26 million for a three-book deal in 1989


Tom Clancy received $75 million for a two-book deal with Penguin




Edgar Allan Poe was offered $14 for Eureka towards the end of his life, with the proviso that if the book didn’t earn that amount, he had to make up the difference to the publisher. In 1846 he offered to sell the copyright of a collection of his short stories for as little as $50. The offer was rejected.


Thomas Wolfe received only $500 for his massive work Look Homeward, Angel, which works out at about 1 of your English pennies for every 100 words.


Jack London got a $2,000 flat fee for The Call of the Wild in 1903. The book sold so well that he lost upwards of $100,000 by giving up the royalties.


Burnt books


After his death Gerard Manly Hopkins’ final poems were burned on the instructions of his religious order


Copies of John Milton’s books were burned publicly in 1660 because he was critical of Charles II. He went on, of course, to write Paradise Lost, but after he died his widow sold the copyright of it for £8.


When Moliere was in the process of translating Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, one of his servants casually picked up some of the pages and used them as curl papers for Moliere’s wig. So enraged was Moliere that he threw the rest of the manuscript into the fire. Continue reading

Famous men and the books they read as children

Found in the Christmas 1930 issue of The Bookmanis the following account by Thurston Hopkins of some famous men’s responses to his questions about the books they recall reading in childhood. There is even a facsimile of a fragment of the letter Shaw sent to Hopkins dated 29th  December 1929.


In an introduction to his survey Hopkins regrets the passing of the ‘ mainstays ‘ of popular children’s literature—Robinson Crusoe and Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales—in favour of thrillers and mystery stories. Luckily, some of the old favourites do feature in the choices made by these eminent men.


Rudyard Kipling


Mr Kipling was probably born with a taste for curious and out-of-the-way books. At fourteen he was in the editor’s chair of the United Services College Chronicle, and was allowed the run of the head master’s study—-that ‘brown-bound, tobacco-scented library’ that he speaks of with such reverence in his chronicles of school boy life. Kipling stolidly read his way through the whole library. There were many of the ancient dramatists, a set of the ‘ Voyages of Hakluyt’, a literary treasure which do doubt supplied Kipling with much information that he makes us of in his later books; French translations of the Muscovite authors, Pushkin and Lermontoff; the ‘ Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, afterwards parodied by him in ‘Departmental Ditties ‘; there were volumes of Crashaw, Dryden, Alexander Smith, L.E.L., Lydia Sigourney, Fletcher’s Purple Island, Donne. Marlowe’s Faust, Ossian, ‘The Earthly Paradise’, ‘Atlanta in Calydon’ and Rossetti. Continue reading

The cream of English fiction ‘: George Moore’s surprising Bronte confession

George Moore picIt’s always revealing to learn which books were the favourites of certain writers—and which books or writers were reviled. We know what Wyndham Lewis felt about the Bloomsbury set. It’s all in The Apes of God. It’s not a secret that Martin Amis worships Nabokov and Saul Bellow or that Kingsley Amis was a Janeite. The likes and dislikes of pre-modernist writers, however, tend to be less well known today, so it’s good to find someone expressing their secret admiration for a certain writer or a certain passage of prose or poetry.


The Irish novelist George Moore is rather forgotten today, although academic interest in his work persists for some reason or other. We personally are not drawn to his books, but Moore was certainly a fan of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,as he admitted to his friend Edmund Gosse in a letter dated 28thApril, 1920, a typewritten copy of which we found interleaved in Evan Charteris’ Life and Letters.


After gladly accepting an invitation to dinner from Mrs Gosse, Moore declares that he is very excited at re-reading the novel he had first read at the age of twelve:


‘ never losing sight of it for half a century and more; it is the only book I read in my infancy that I remember; it fixed itself in my childish imagination, and my mature judgement has no hesitation in declaring it to be the cream of English fiction…the first half has all the merits that Miss Austin has and other merits besides…’


We will forgive Mr Moore the misspelling of Jane Austen’s name, but what follows comes as a greater surprise. Continue reading

A significant literary discovery: an envelope associated with Toru Dutt, the Indian prodigy who died at 21

Dutt father's envelope 1878 001

Found interleaved in a copy of The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse by Evan Charteris (1931) at Jot HQ is an empty envelope addressed to Gosse postmarked Simla May 8th1878. At the top of the envelope the sender has written ‘via Brindisi ‘.

A message that occupies the rest of the envelope follows thus:


‘ To E.W.G Esq. The writer of an article headed “ A Book of Verse from India “ in the Examiner Newspaper of the 26thAugust 1876 care of the Editor of the Examiner or of the Publisher Edward Dallow Esqre. Examiner Office. 135 Strand, London W.C.


What ostensibly seems to throw up problems of identification turns out, thanks to a little online research, a significant document in the history of Anglo-Indian literature. All the clues needed to identify the sender of the letter (alas missing) can be found on the cover of its envelope. Firstly E.W.G. is obviously Edmund Gosse, although at the time the letter-writer knew him only by his initials, the custom at the time being for some reviewers only to use the first letters of their names. The review in question appeared in The Examiner, a literary newspaper that had been founded by the poet, critic and friend of John Keats, Leigh Hunt in 1808. By the time Gosse was writing for it this once radical journal has lost its bite, but the fact that it was willing to allot space to a debut collection by an unknown young writer from Calcutta brought out by a small publisher in the city without preface or introduction, suggests that it recognised genuine talent.


And this poet deserved to be recognised. Toru Dutt was the highly educated daughter of a leading Government official from Calcutta and she was just twenty when A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields appeared. We don’t exactly know how such an obscure volume appeared on Gosse’s desk in London, but it is highly likely that Toru’s proud father, Govin Chandra Dutt, himself a linguist and a poet, was both responsible for sending the book to the Examiner and writing the letter to Gosse. If not her father, it may have been her mother, a talented interpreter, or her translator sister, who wrote the letter. All were aware of Toru’s prodigious literary gifts. We do not know the significance of ‘via Brindisi ‘ inscribed on the envelope. Continue reading

Marie Corelli in 1909


Jot 101 Bookman Corelli 001Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, Tennyson and William Gladstone admired her; Mark Twain and most of the Press did not. She is said to have outsold Dickens. Some of her novels went into twenty-five or more editions. In an era when writers like H. G. Wells were promoting the  New Woman, she reviled this modern phenomenon, and yet some of her heroines could be said to have embodied the virtues—a sense of adventure, a resoluteness and a curiosity– of this type . She promoted Christianity and yet wrote about occultism and transcendence. In her private life she dressed as a rather twee lady, but was a hard-nosed businesswoman in her dealings with publishers and the Press. She had a reputation for ostentation. Owning the grandest house in Stratford-on-Avon ( now an outpost of the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute ), she had  acres of trim garden, a tower for writing and a gondola on the river. Her readers adored her, so why, nearly a hundred years after her death is Marie Corelli, arguably the best-selling female author of all time, now almost totally forgotten ? If you wish to buy a first of her many novels today, you need not part with more than a tenner—often much less. From being a former Queen of the subscription libraries Corelli has become a literary curiosity, fit only for examination in academic studies on the cult of celebrity and the role of the popular novel in society.

Corelli sold millions of books, but was she ever any good ? The Bookman, a serious middlebrow literary journal, certainly saw her  as a significant writer. In May 1909, at the height of her fame, a whole issue was devoted to an appreciation of her life and work by A.St John Adcock, the magazine’s editor, who called on various admirers to support his view of her greatness. Firstly, Adcock takes aim at those ‘cocksure’ critics who set themselves up as the final arbiters of good writing: ‘ There are a thousand times as many critics who have never written a line of criticism, but are not therefore the less cultured, impartial, competent.’ Adcock then turns to the ‘ superior ‘ critics of Marie Corelli:

No living author has been more persistently maligned and sneered at and scouted by certain members of the Press—by the presumptuous and struttingly academic section of it particularly—than has Miss Marie Corelli; and none has won ( by sheer force of her own merits, for the press has never helped her) a wider, more persistently increasing fame and affection among all classes of that intelligent public which reads and judges books, but does not write about them… Continue reading

Fay Inchfawn

Inchfawn cover pic 2 001Discovered at Jot HQ is this first edition of one of the ‘Homely Woman’ pocket volumes by the prolific female writer Fay Inchfawn ( aka Elizabeth Rebecca Ward, 1880 – 1978), whose work is forgotten now, but whose books, which included popular verse, religious works and children’s literature, were once, to quote the blurb from her publisher Ward, Lock & Co in 1947,  ‘to be found in countless homes, for more than half a million have been sold’.

To further quote from her publicity department:

 ‘everyone of Fay Inchfawn’s delightful little books rings with a true sincerity from cover to cover. She can extract joy from the scullery, yes, even from the wash tub…If Fay Inchfawn cannot bring some compensation to you in your humdrum daily toil—well, nobody can ! She has certainly done so for countless wives and mothers, and if you do not happen to be one of those so fortunate, it is up to you to see what she can do for you. Surely she cannot fail ! ‘


Inchfawn, who lived in Freshford, near Bath, for most of her life, also contributed to women’s magazines, and if she didn’t write for my grandmother’s favourite magazine, The People’s Friend, she should have done. The Day’s Journey, which is one of her ‘ religious works, seems perfumed with peppermint creams and Werner’s Originals.


A Day’s Journeyis a homily which takes its inspiration from The Pilgrim’s Progress. Its homely message seems to be that like Bunyan’s pilgrim, the wanderer through life will overcome all the difficulties that confront him by applying the self-reliance and common wisdom that God has conferred on him and by ignoring all the vices and distractions placed in his way by the ‘Prince of Evil’. Continue reading

Laughing at Poetry

Laughing at SwinburneIn the April 24th 1942 issue of John O’London’s Weekly can be found a perceptive view by the essayist Robert Lynd on the subject of risible poetry written by good poets. He takes his cue from an incident a century before when Thomas Wakley, the founder of the Lancet, stood up in the Commons to mock some puerile lines from ‘Louisa’ by the Poet Laureate, William Wordsworth.

Lynd then goes on to wonder whether ‘absurdities were so common in the older poets as they came in the period that followed the French Revolution. Shakespeare and Milton seem never to have descended to such unconscious ludicrousness as Wordsworth. I do not think that any of the older poets ever wrote a line that parodies itself so easily as Swinburne’s :–

Swallow, my sister: O Sister


‘One of Swinburne’s loveliest poems, ‘Before a Mirror ‘, Lynd continues, ‘begins with a verse of extraordinary nonsense –at least, containing extraordinary nonsense—and yet who can fail to be moved by it:– Continue reading

Critics get it wrong (again)

Some of the following pronouncements taken from Ronald Duncan’s Critics gaffes Duncan pic 001hilarious and sometimes shocking anthology, Critics’ Gaffes (1983), come from critics who supposedly know what they’re talking about. Others are the judgements of those who haven’t a clue.  Perhaps Geoffrey Grigson nailed it when he described the romantic novelist and radio presenter Melvyn Bragg as ‘a media mediocrity who couldn’t tell good literature from old gym shoes.’ Mind you, like the stopped clock which tells the right time twice a day, a few of the following verdicts have the ring of truth.

Theatre critic Robert Morley on Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece.

‘…it is my considered opinion that the success of Waiting for Godot’ is the end of the theatre as we know it’.


Essayist and critic William Hazlitt on Lord Byron

‘He makes virtue serve as a foil to vices…the noble lord is almost the only writer who has prostituted his talents in this way.’

George Henry Lewis on Charles Dickens

‘Thought is strangely absent from his works. I do not suppose a single thoughtful remark on life or character could be found throughout the twenty volumes.’   (1872)

Aldous Huxley on Dickens Continue reading

Pregnant with a new book—-Marguerite Evans writes to fellow novelist Berta Ruck

Oliver Sandys letter to Onions 001Found tucked away in the same envelope with the letter ( see earlier Jot) written to Oliver Onions from Rupert Croft-Cooke is a short letter dated May 24th1962 from the very prolific novelist and magazine contributor Marguerite Evans ( 1886 – 1964) to fellow novelist Berta Ruck (1878 – 1978), wife of Oliver Onions. Evans wrote under three pen names—Oliver Sandys—which she used on some of her headed notepaper—Marguerite Barclay (using her given name) and Countess Barcynska. Evans published an incredible 130 novels between 1911 and 1946, and her oeuvre also includes non-fiction. She has been described as a purveyor of ’middlebrow fiction ‘, which as one critic has pointed out, is not a helpful term in her case. Several of her novels were filmed, most notably ‘The Pleasure Garden’( 1925), which was Alfred Hitchcock’s first completed film as director.

Ruck and Evans did not live too far from one another –Ruck in Aberdovey and Evans at The Ancient House, Little Stretton, Shropshire. In the letter Evans promises to visit the older woman:

‘Would give anything for a long, long chat with you…Am on last lap of book & feeling very pregnant. Thank heaven for that because before, the sensation was like a bad ‘ mis ‘ ! How strange this opus creation  in its likeness  to those functions. Have you not felt the same?

I do hope EAT. is better. Tell him I am truly and regularlyconcentrating on him & it would be lovely to hear he is better & stronger. This isn’t a letter . It is to send love.


Marguerite. ‘

Two years later Evans was dead. Her husband Caradoc, who she had married in 1933, had died aged just 67, back in 1945. A controversial writer, whose collection of short stories, My People(1915) earned him the unenviable title ‘ the best-hated man in Wales’, is now recognised as ‘ the founding father of Anglo-Welsh writing’. On his death Marguerite paid him the greatest tribute by publishing his biography. Her own autobiography, Full and Frank, may shed some light on her friendship with Ruck and may also identify EAT. Ruck died in 1978 aged 100.

I found Chris Hopkins’ online paper ‘ Self-portrait of the Middlebrow as artist’ useful in the compilation of this Jot.    [R.M.Healey]


Ada Elizabeth Smith (1875- 1898) forgotten poet

IMG_5562Found in a book published by J.R. Tutin, the Hull based reprinter of 17th century literature, a short letter from 1908 to John Haines, a Gloucestershire solicitor and minor poet associated with Ivor Gurney, F.W. Harvey, Edward Thomas and other members of the Dymock Poets group. After discussing various Elizabethan writers Tutin wrote out a fine poem by Ada Elizabeth Smith (1875- 1898) called ‘The Earth Lover’. He had found it in a recent anthology New Songs put together by F Y Bowles – ‘the poem is a real gem in my opinion : yet I’ve not seen it noticed by in any of the reviews of the book.’ A search online reveals little about Ada Elizabeth Smith, a classic poete maudit, except this anonymous (‘J.L.G.’) quite high-flown notice in the London based literary magazine The Academy of December 1898 a week after her untimely death.

Early Dead. Ada Smith 1875 – 1898 In Memoriam. 17 – 12 – 98

Ada Smith was born in Haltwhistle, a hard featured village from which a bare land runs up to the bleak escarpments that carry the ruined line of the Roman wall. She began early to write verse, and published at 13, having acquired very easily a  versification of noticeable grace, smoothness, and cadence. She spent some years abroad, chiefly at Vienna and went about with adventurous and observant audacity. Her idea was that she must not only study life as it met her, but seek it out in the hope of writing novels in the coming time. At this period some of the work found its way into the hands of the present writer. It had too many words and not enough pauses and there was much feigning of the Heinesque. Without being quite able to see what she might arrive at, one felt she must go on.

She returned from Vienna last year with the feeling that she was at last equipped for London, and the great adventure could not be delayed.  She attempted London at the age of 22 with a nerve wilful and steady. She did not fail. Verses began to be accepted, and her work matured rapidly. She did typewriting, and it must have been hateful.. Her constitution suddenly began to give way in the summer. A long holiday upon the Northumbrian coast made her better, but not well. She ought not to have gone back to typewriting in the city, but she would and did. A couple of months ago she had to return to the North for the last time quite broken down. Her illness ultimately developed in the gravest way then advanced with frightful rapidity. She died at Newcastle upon Tyne upon the Wednesday night of last week.

Continue reading

Iris Murdoch as a book collector

IMG_5189Found – a receipt from the late booksellers Eric and Joan Stevens for books sold to the novelist Iris Murdoch in 1966. There is also a request in her hand  for anything by, or on, Pushkin. Iris Murdoch was very keen on Russian literature, especially Dostoyevsky, but she did not write about Pushkin – although her husband John Bayley wrote Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary which was published in 1971. This request may have been for him.

Her order is certainly eclectic- some religious, even mystical work, (Radhakrishnan and Swedenborg), a geezerish prison memoir, not at all her style – Frank Norman’s Bang to Rights and a book on the Samurai (‘Bushido’). Peter’s My Sister, My Spouse is about Lou Andreas Salome ‘A Biography of the Woman Who Inspired Freud’ (also Nietzsche and Rilke) – an important and much loved  writer and psychiatrist.  Penn’s  No Cross, No Crown is William Penn’s work on Primitive Christianity from 1669, probably not a first edition at 10 shillings, although the Stevens were always very reasonable in their pricing.

Other works ordered include  a Baedeker for the Rhine, possibly for a holiday. It its still fun to visit Europe with an old Baedeker. Schopenhauer is dealt with fairly well in her later work Metaphysics as a Guide  to Morals. Kropotkin fits in with her interest in Russian life and literature. Hale’s Famous Sea Fights is a mystery, possibly light reading or a present for a friend.

The Stevens’  had other famous writers as clients, including Anita Brookner and Geoffrey Hill, from whom they also bought many books. Iris Murdoch’s considerable library eventually went into the book trade, but not to Eric and Joan.