B. M. Croker—Her Punctuation—The Rise of the Indian Novel—A Recipe for Best Sellers—Corrective to the Foregoing—Bad Medical Books—A Publisher’s Telegrams—New Books—Harrod’s Book Week—A. A. Milne’s Plays—William Heinemann—A Few Hints to Publishers.
LONDON, November 1, 1920.
The death of Mrs. Croker was not altogether unexpected, as she has been unwell for a considerable time; but she will be missed as a woman, even more than as an author. To the last she retained her charming brogue, and if her tales of the villainies of publishers were always a trifle tinged with exaggeration she was always a vivacious talker. It is probably true that her earliest—and best—novels were bought outright for sums much smaller than the amounts they would have earned upon a royalty basis; but she was not without commercial sense, or sense of the commercial value of her books, and for some years she certainly accepted not less than her work was marketably worth. As a novelist she had two strings to her bow—Ireland and India. Irish birth and a long residence in India gave her the strings, and if the patterns she worked with them were largely the same pattern, that would not displease her patrons in the least. I cannot recall having read, in recent years, a great many of her books; but some of them I have certainly read, quite lately. The last was an early novel, “Beyond the Pale”-—astonishingly workmanlike, and very readable. Its scene was Ireland. The latest published book I have read was “Lismoyle”, which appeared in 1914. There were stock characters in it, and stock incidents and settings; but it had the Croker freshness all through, a kind of tale-telling instinct, enlivened by a genuine gusto in unfolding even an ancient piece of knitting.
Mrs. Croker’s unique punctuation—of which she was very proud—also adorned the book. Quite what she understood by punctuation I never knew; but in her hands the comma was deliberately used to devastate perfectly decent English. In ancient days Mrs. Croker was dogged by printers, who changed her punctuation (it is a thing printers in England frequently do, unless they are feverishly warned beforehand); but Mrs. Croker one day read an early book and was shocked to find that there had been some tragic interference with her remarkable comma system. She immediately read through the greater number of her books (there must be about fifty of them altogether), and repunctuated them throughout. She was proudly indifferent to ordinary punctuation. Her own was supreme. I never saw anything like it. Unfortunately I cannot quote an exact specimen; but her custom was something like this:
Eileen, went down the road, murmuring; to herself, and looking, ahead, for she observed, coming, towards her a cow, of the most unusual, size.
As far as I recollect that is not an exaggeration; but a mild example. And Mrs. Croker was absolutely unshakable in her adherence to all the commas.
About the Indian novels I cannot speak with so much knowledge. It is years since I read one, and Indian novels are among the most popular of all novels in England. I mean, novels about station and social life in British India. Mrs. Croker’s were among the popular novels, but not the most popular. She never had the distinction of a Kipling, and never the popularity of a Dell or a Diver. (Are these latter allusions obscure to the American reader? I wonder.) Let me explain. Twenty years ago, Kipling was supreme as a man who wrote about Indian life—the life led by officers and their wives on the stations and in places such as Simla. There was only one woman novelist—Flora Annie Steel—who was at all famous for such work; and her books were long, serious, and conscientious tales with accurate local color and a fair amount of tragic emotionalism in them. Kipling never wrote a full-length novel of social life in India. He had other fish to fry. But he made several—as it were—cameos in the form of short stories. He got the tone of that society, with its parochial interests and its strain of simple-minded sexual preoccupation. (Where there are few women in a small community love flutters about rather loose, and scrutiny is half-malicious and half-sophisticated. ) It was in Mrs. Steel’s books that later women novelists, some of whom have never visited India, found their inspiration. Her books set the tone for the others.
And what a lot of others there have been! I do not speak necessarily of such writers as Mrs. Penny and Mrs. Perrin, who assiduously record, as they have been for years recording, the amorous adventures of people residing in the English colony somewhere or other in India. There are many besides these two. It will be remembered that one of England’s present best sellers, Ethel M. Dell, wrote a book called “The Way of an Eagle”. It was a book, a first novel, which was published without expectation of a furore, and for a time its sale was slow. But gradually the sale grew. It leaped. It buzzed and hummed. And at last a best seller was going like a comet through England. That book was not only a best seller. It was much more. It was about India. And moreover it contained the recipe for best selling in England. It was long; it was sentimental; it was brutal; and the foregone conclusion was deferred by ingenious means for many many pages. I forget whether the hero and heroine were married early in the book; but they certainly took long compromising journeys together, and slept out in the open, and did all sorts of things to stir the prurience of the average novel-reader. And the heroine hated the hero all through the book, so that in the end, with her pride humbled, she should acknowledge him lovingly as her master. She acknowledged, that is, his physical domination. I do not think Miss Dell planned this sublime success. I think she wrote with all her heart, and Providence saw to it that what had pleased Miss Dell should please hundreds of other Englishwomen.
There is another novelist of India who can deliver the goods—Maud Diver. Mrs. Diver certainly appears to know India. I doubt if Miss Dell has been there; but she may have been, and she handles her local color with great effect. Mrs. Diver scored a tremendous success with “Captain Desmond, V.C.” That was India. She followed it up with a novel, “The Great Amulet”, in which the Desmonds (the V.C. and his second wife) reappeared. And she hit by some glorious instinct upon the best beloved scheme known to novel-readers. Her hero and heroine were married in the first chapter, but were parted before nightfall through jealousy and pride. They did not meet again for five years. In those five years the hero had taken to smoking opium-charged tobacco. When they met again he saved her life and they exchanged stiff greetings. And their love rose up again like a fierce fire. It was not long before they were passionately embracing. That was only half-way through the book. “What the devil!” cries the impatient critic. “What the devil’s going to keep them apart now?” The answer is: his scruples. The heroine didn’t care. She saw no reason to delay their happiness. But the hero did. He kept the poor girl waiting for a year, and two hundred pages, while he wrestled with the opium craving. Then at last they could have a baby, after the man had broken his neck, died of cholera, died of rheumatic fever, and been half over India.
You appreciate the point, don’t you? The whole art of sentimental novel-writing is to keep on cheating the reader’s expectation of the nuptial bed. It was realized in the beginning by that profound student of human nature, Samuel Richardson. His Pamela was always escaping dangers which make our hair stand on end. Mr. B. was always hiding in cupboards and doing everything else possible to compass her ruin. Never was known such suspense. It was the recipe. Once throw two people together in life, and knowledge of the course of propinquity is enough to keep every reader alert. The desert island is a familiar theme. The marriage of two who separate immediately and meet again later, or two who execute a mariage de convenance and fall subsequently in love, is infallible. It has inspired thousands of novels and novelettes. It will inspire thousands more. Two people who have been linked by circumstance or the law are born to be lovers, the more ardent because of early distaste or misunderstanding. Get them indissolubly linked, and every struggle will draw them closer together. Then throw in another woman for the man, and another man for the woman, with plenty of talk about love, about men (as a sex) and women (as a species), and you have a best seller. See if I’m not right. And if there can be local color involving hardship, illness, nursing, unusual opportunities for intimacy and wanton misunderstanding, so much the better. India, Australia, Africa, North America. Why, I could almost write a best seller myself!
One thing I had nearly forgotten. Proneness to the use of drink or drugs is a very good thing. It is always likely to delay the eventual happiness of the pair. For that, it must be a temptation for the man to fight down. This gives the woman a chance to be (a) bravely patient, (b) helpful, or “womanly”, (c) a constant inspiration, (d) the active force in bringing about union. That is, it enables her to express her love in more outspoken terms than would otherwise be allowable. And the point may be stressed by the man, in explaining his need to fight the demon, saying painfully: “If there should be a . . . child . . . !” But delay is the main thing. Delay the culmination. Once suspense is at an end, close the book. Hang it out, if you can, for four or even five hundred pages; but as soon as you have exhausted your expedients for delay, be brief. It is then no time for rhapsodies. The nightjar or the owl, or any nocturnal bird, may utter some comment. The moon may rise. The sea may creep up the sands, or the trees may whisper; in the village a dog may bark; lights may begin to twinkle in distant houses. But as soon as anything of that sort happens the book must close. Its work is done. The ultimate speech for any hero in any best seller is a speech nobody ever makes in serious conversation in real life. It is the solemn word, “Come”.
In what I have said above I may inadvertently have given the impression that novels—even best sellers—are written to plan. I do not believe this, and have said as much on previous occasions. They are written in accordance with the novelist’s own taste. Very few bad books are deliberately bad. They are bad because the authors have a natural instinct to write bad books. Good books are written in the same way. Not by the results alone may you detect good or bad novelists; but by the personalities the books express. The same applies to works other than fiction. Bad economics or bad medical works are the result of intrinsic badness in the authors.
Talking of bad medical works, I recently picked up a book about the numerical superiority of females in the world. It was not a Stopes book, about radiant motherhood. It purported to deal in a scientific spirit with the economic position of women. It pounded away at its thesis, which was that women ought to have boy babies, and not girls. With my hair on end I turned page after page of this burning essay. The author said that this and this had been urged as a means of equalizing the balance—equal pay, equal education, and so on; but that these were only palliatives. The one way was to control the sex of all children at conception. It sounded magnificent; but by the time the point was reached I was staggered to find how few more pages remained to be read. Finally, upon the last page of all, was an address to which intending mothers of male children were to apply for absolutely infallible advice. The whole book, in fact, was an advertisement. It reminds me that a publisher once received a telegram from a great friend, urging him to communicate at once, before it was too late, with somebody who had written a work of world-shaking importance. In a fever, he rose from his bed and roused his office. He wired right and left, all over England: “What is the nature of this work? For God’s sake reveal title.” In reply he received: “The predetermination of sex in unborn infants.” I still remember with almost hysterical mirth the publisher’s collapse at receipt of the reply. He was an unmarried sceptic, and he cared no more about this subject than the man in the moon.
Other telegrams I have heard of relate to the dispatch of a portion of a manuscript to—it was alleged—the most dignified publisher in London. After a few days, the author swore that he received a telegram from the dignified publisher: “Is pudding up to sample?” He answered: “No. You have the plum.” Instantly he heard again, the publisher wiring: “Send along the dough.” I never knew if the book was accepted; it must have been an exceptional work to provoke such telegraphic scintillations.
All this has very little to do with the state of the book trade in London at the present moment; but the truth is that what with strikes and economy and high prices the book trade is rather stagnant just now. The books which are selling best of all, I am told, are non-fiction. Of these Wells’s “Outline of History”, in a one-volume edition at a guinea (very good value), and Colonel Repington’s book of wartime reminiscences are the most successful. Mrs. Asquith’s book is not yet ready, but is due in a day or two. It is sure to have a great run, because only a portion of the whole has been serialized. Walter de la Mare’s poems are being widely noticed. Otherwise it is a dull season, and has little that is outstanding.
Among novels I should say that Walpole’s “The Captives” is standing well out from the rest. It has very few competitors at the moment of writing. Lawrence’s “The Lost Girl” is just out (this is the book I announced some months ago as “The Bitter Cherry”), and will probably make some stir. Otherwise there does not seem to be anything remarkable from the literary point of view. Gilbert Cannan, I hear, is back in London, and once more at work on novel-writing. It is some time since he published any fiction, so I shall be interested to see whether his wide travels of the last two years have had any effect upon his manner and his matter. The other “young novelists” seem to be saving themselves for the spring. May their work benefit by the delay!
One effort which is being made over here to encourage the purchase of books deserves mention. It may be a commonplace in America; but in London it is an innovation. This is nothing more nor less than a “Book Week” at Harrod’s Stores. The manager of the book department, Miss Pook, recently spent some time in the States, and seems to have returned full of schemes. At this Book Week various well-known writers are expected to put in an appearance, some of them to speak; and although I am a little in the dark as to the actual procedure I suppose their appearances will be duly scheduled. I can imagine no more pleasing spectacle than the relative crowds to attend the different speeches. It should be a notable indication of relative popularities. I was told that Thomas Hardy had been invited to open the proceedings; but I presume that this depends very much upon circumstances, even if the great novelist can be prevailed upon in any case. There is a good deal to be said for such forms of encouragement to book buyers; though I doubt if most good writers care to make shows of themselves, even in so general and good a cause as the selling of other authors’ works.
I see that A. A. Milne’s play, “Mr. Pim Passes By”, is to be issued in America by Doran. It will no doubt be included in the second volume of “Plays” which Milne is preparing for spring publication here. This book should also contain the new play which has just been staged with such success by Arthur Wontner at the Comedy Theatre. The title of this play is “The Romantic Age”, and although it is very slight in texture it is a most radiant affair. Milne’s best work has hitherto been discoverable in his shorter pieces, and there are many of us who have cherished the most exquisite memories of his “Punch” series, “The Rabbits”. It seems to me that “The Romantic Age” captures for the theatre the charm of “The Rabbits”, and apart from some tenuity in the second act the whole thing is extraordinarily sustained nonsense. I am so glad, for Milne’s talent is just about the freshest and most charming we have in its own vein of light humor. He possesses the greatest gift I know of writing nonsense that curls round and round about one’s heart. It is the simplest and most delicious kind of nonsense, the kind of stuff that moves laughter without any least stain of sophistication. If that can be made into plays with success, then it will be possible yet to make the theatre a place for wholesome amusement. In my opinion “The Romantic Age” is technically much superior to “Mr. Pim”, of which my recollection is already of a rather scattered entertainment.
The death of William Heinemann the other day removed from the world one of the most individual of English publishers, and one of the very few who knew anything about books. Heinemann’s business only dates from the ’nineties; but a glance at his catalogue is enough to show that it is the work of one who, without being grandiose, saw and planned largely and courageously. Mistakes he made of course. He missed some good works and ventured upon some mediocre ones. But of what publisher cannot that be said? The point remains that Heinemann’s standard was a high one, that his publications for thirty years have been distinguished by their quality and the courage of their producer, and that above all things Heinemann was the nearest approach we have to an international publisher—a publisher with international horizons. To him we owe the complete translations of Turgenev, Ibsen, Dostoyevsky, Heine; the incomplete translations of Björnson, Tolstoy (by Mrs. Garnett); and the translations of many books from the German, Norwegian, French, Spanish, and Italian. He published a very large number of novels, and of that number the majority were worth publishing—few publishers could claim as much. He was not a poacher of successful authors; but made reputations by his own confidence. In the publishing trade his reputation was high, and he interested himself actively in several schemes in aid of employees in the trade. He was absorbed in publishing.
For some years Heinemann had been president of the Book Trade Provident Society. He had helped this society in many ways, securing lectures and performances for its lighter entertainment, superintending its committees, unhesitatingly giving time and attention to details which he might have been excused for neglecting. He was the worst speaker I ever heard; but, although it must have been torture for him, he spoke at public meetings of the society, and pursued his task to its unrewarded end. He was in every sense a good publisher. Before his death he had completed arrangements for an edition de luxe of the works of Joseph Conrad, and another of one of the leading novelists’ principal books. He had taken over the publication of George Moore, and had stood the racket of a libel action frivolously brought against the author and publisher of “Lewis Seymour”. He was one of the few intelligent members of that singular body, the Publishers’ Association.
Macmillans, I see, have taken over the works of W. E. Henley, and are going to publish them in a series of volumes. A great deal still remains to be done in the matter of collecting the works—at present scattered—of various writers of secondary importance and first-rate literary interest. In this respect Macmillans have a great opportunity, and it is good to see that they are not averse from taking it. Many writers who have enjoyed a small, and still unconsolidated, success would benefit by having their works brought together in a convenient form. One of these is Richard Jefferies. Another is William Hazlitt (the big edition of whose works, which might still be increased by a couple of well-edited volumes, is now at a premium). A third is George Gissing. I name these three, not as comparable writers, but as the first three who come into my head. There are plenty more of them. Small publishers cannot lock up money in such enterprises; but larger firms would find them profitable in the long run. Macmillans once made a heroic start with Charles Lever; but that must have been a well-nigh impossible adventure. So, I suppose, would a set of Trollope; but at least Trollope’s major works (outside the Barsetshire sets of which there are plenty) might be put within our reach. I have many other suggestions, which I will unfold in due time; but these will do for the present.
— Simon Pure