J.I.M. Stewart

J.I.M. Stewart novelist and former reader in English Literature at Oxford, is the author of Eight Modern Writers and of books on Kipling, Conrad and Hardy.


J.I.M. Stewart, 23 October 1986

In the fourth act of Measure for Measure the Provost describes the prisoner Barnardine, whose head, when severed, it is proposed to pass off as Claudio’s, as ‘a man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep – careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come: insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal’. David Smith finds most of this description eminently applicable to H.G. Wells (whom he intensely admires) and he adopts its final two words as a subtitle for his biography. What sense Shakespeare attached to them is doubtful. Johnson suggests ‘likely to die in a desperate state’, but Professor Smith seems to view them as equivalent to ‘desperately unreconciled to dying and giving up’. And Wells did, it seems, when celebrating his 70th birthday, tell an audience that ‘he was not yet ready to go.’ ‘He clung to life,’ Professor Smith comments on this, ‘and to his mission to make us and our world better.’ Yet we learn that eight years later Wells appears to have been of another mind, recording of himself: ‘The present writer is in his 79th year; he has lived cheerfully and abundantly. Like Landor he has warmed both hands at the fire of life and now, as it sinks towards a restrictive invalidism, he is ready to depart … He awaits his end, watching mankind, still keen to find a helpful use for his accumulation of experience in this time of mental confusion, but without that headlong stress to come to conclusions with life, which is a necessary part of the make-up of any normal youngster, male or female.’ Wells, that is to say, still wants to sort us out, but is at the same time perfectly ready to call it a day. Just how he came to be ‘desperately mortal’ surely remains obscure. There is a point in The Island of Dr Moreau – unnoticed by Professor Smith – at which the narrator reveals his state of mind when hunted by the Beast People. He had been ‘too desperate to die’. Whether any light is to be extracted from this, I don’t know.’

Making them think

J.I.M. Stewart, 18 September 1986

In a Foreword to this very substantial book Michael Ffinch says that G.K. Chesterton ‘was above all things a great champion of Liberty’. He goes on: ‘This being so, it has often come as a surprise that in religion Chesterton should have moved away from the Liberal Unitarianism of his childhood towards Catholicism … Yet Chesterton knew that it was only by loving and serving God through his Church that perfect freedom may be found, so it was inevitable that in the cause of Liberty he also became a defender of the Faith … The understanding of this seeming paradox must be the chief concern of any biography of Chesterton, for the expounding of it was the chief concern of his life.’ On the following page Mr Ffinch tells of being admitted by Miss Dorothy Collins, Chesterton’s literary executor, to archival material so rich that he ‘remained happily stranded in the attic for twelve hours a day for several weeks’. ‘As each chest, trunk, suitcase or box revealed its treasures in the form of letters, articles, drawings and notebooks (in one box I found some thirty notebooks), I felt as if I had discovered Ben Gunn’s gold. In a suitcase there were many of the characters and scenery from Chesterton’s Toy Theatre … in another the early drafts of his great book, The Everlasting Man; while in a drawer I found more personal things: Chesterton’s passport, his pen, his spectacles, a Papal Medal, and his rosary.’ One may be edified, I suppose, by the Papal Medal and the rosary while at the same time feeling that early drafts of Chesterton’s most important work of Christian apologetics are likely to be of more substantial interest. Mr Ffinch, however, has nothing further to say about them, and what he seems chiefly to have carried off from amid Ben Gunn’s gold are numerous scraps of mediocre verse. And of just this, as it happens, some readers will recall quite enough in Maisie Ward’s earlier biography of Chesterton, published in 1944.’


J.I.M. Stewart, 5 June 1986

When in December 1926 the creator of Hercule Poirot disappeared the creator of Sherlock Holmes somehow possessed himself of one of her gloves, and at once took it to a Mr Horace Leaf with a result which he describes in a letter to the Morning Post, written on 16 December (ten days, that is, after Agatha Christie had vanished), and now reprinted in the present volume of selections from Conan Doyle’s letters to the press. Mr Leaf, this letter declares, is ‘an excellent psychometrist’ who ‘at once got the name of Agatha’ and then said: ‘There is trouble connected with this article. The person who owns it is half dazed and half purposeful. She is not dead as many think. She is alive. You will hear of her, I think, next Wednesday.’ Mrs Christie was found on the Tuesday night, but – sure enough – it was Wednesday when the news reached Doyle, who at once communicated so striking a psychic manifestation to Colonel Christie – from whose appalling behaviour as a husband it is now generally held that Mrs Christie (in whatever condition of mind) had taken flight.’

The chair she sat on

J.I.M. Stewart, 19 July 1984

This is the second and final volume of Hilary Spurling’s biography of I. Compton-Burnett, and it comes to us ten years after the first. During this interval has Mrs Spurling been attending to other things? So abundant, so heavily pendulous upon the bough, are the fruits of research now offered to us (so very thick, we may say, has grown the ivy elegantly disposed on the present dust-jacket as on the last) that nothing of the kind need be supposed. Mrs Spurling must surely have been at work from the dawn of life, determined to know as much as God himself about Ivy’s ancestors, parents, siblings, enemies, rivals, friends, acquaintances, servants, mentors and (above all) sources and channels of inspiration, and to hand us on everything we are prepared to take. I find myself prepared to take a great deal. Enthusiasm and pertinacity are by no means Mrs Spurling’s sole endowments. Endlessly curious as she ought to be, she brings sound judgment and taste to bear upon almost everything she finds, and her conclusions are embodied in an admirable expository prose. The two volumes together make a notable contribution to modern literary biography.

Browning Versions

J.I.M. Stewart, 5 July 1984

Oscar Browning – universally known as O.B., and in modern times only rivalled as Cambridge’s most celebrated don by his fellow Kingsman, J.M. Keynes – died in Rome in 1923 at the age of 86, having extracted from a nephew, Hugo Wortham, a promise to undertake his biography, and in return making Wortham his heir and literary executor. The biography, which appeared in 1927, earned a good deal of informed approbation. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, who as an undergraduate had been much influenced by O.B., admired it greatly. E.M. Forster, briefly O.B.’s pupil (or at least a reader of essays to him while he slumbered under an enormous red handkerchief), described it in 1934 as ‘one of the best biographies of the last few years – quite unsparing and completely sympathetic’.–

Literary Man

J.I.M. Stewart, 7 June 1984

In the third volume of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters George Lyttelton records Hilaire Belloc’s having told him that his mother ‘had seen Napoleon after his return from Elba and he looked un homme rompu’. Whether Napoleon when he landed near Antibes on 1 March 1815 indeed looked rompu historians may have determined: but certainly not with the help of Belloc’s mother, an Englishwoman who was born a little more than fourteen years later. In The Cruise of the Nona, however, Belloc declares that ‘time and again’ in childhood he was told the story of the fall of the Bastille by an eye-witness who was a close friend of his French grandmother. This sufficiently remarkable fact made an enduring impression on him: it was, he declared in 1925, ‘as though some very old person today were to remember having met in childhood a person who had seen John Milton’. But we need not suppose that Lyttelton misunderstood what he was being told. Belloc, he recalls, was busy being ‘great fun’. And mere truth came a poor second to immediate effect with Belloc, whether he was setting out to entertain in company or to demolish an opponent in historical or political controversy.


J.I.M. Stewart, 5 April 1984

But for its background in Father and Son the life of Edmund Gosse would hold for us, I imagine, only minor interest today. Here would be simply a success story of a slightly teasing sort, in considering which we are brought into passing contact with a great many persons of eminence in their time. An under-educated lad comes to London to a clerkship in the library of the British Museum. He is clever but by no means intellectual or even reflective, and he is handicapped by the notion that he is a poet. In no time at all he has made his way into the society and regard of the leading artists and writers of the age, and this position he retains for something like sixty years. Swinburne is devoted to him at the start, as is Siegfried Sassoon at the close, and Henry James is going to address over four hundred letters to him. He weathers two major storms, one emotional and the other resulting from a rash claim that if not a poet he is at least a scholar. Becoming Librarian of the House of Lords, he luxuriates acceptably amid aristocrats in stately halls. His last public appearance is in January 1928 as a pall-bearer at Thomas Hardy’s funeral in Westminster Abbey along with the Prime Minister, Kipling, Shaw, Housman, Barrie, Galsworthy, and the Masters of the Queen’s College, Oxford and Magdalene College, Cambridge – all of whom (with the exception of the dons) I recall as slightly marring the solemnity of the occasion by irresistibly suggesting a group of caricatures by Max Beerbohm. Shortly after this Gosse hurries off to Paris on a visit to André Gide, whose work he had been the first to commend to English readers. In May he undergoes a minor and a major operation in rapid succession, in the interval making arrangements about his next article in the Sunday Times. Within a fortnight he is dead.–

Other Things

J.I.M. Stewart, 2 February 1984

An inexpert but frequently impressive first novel, Soor Hearts is set in Shetland in the early years of this century. Magnus Doull, having sailed before the mast for ten years, returns to the fishing village from which he had fled under suspicion of having murdered Thomas Pole. Nearly everyone believes him guilty, since the two young men had been seen to quarrel. Both had been drinking heavily for a fortnight, and when Pole was found ‘with his head crushed under a fearful blow’ Doull took fright and bolted from the island. Whether or not it was he who killed Pole, he can’t remember. For a time he is allowed to settle down in the family croft with his widowed mother, Meenie Doull. Meenie has the ‘sight’, reinforced by a pack of Tarot cards given her by a gipsy. She spends much time in probings of the future. She reveals to her son that a girl called Nina, who had borne him a still-born child after his flight, is now the village harlot, and that Isabella Agnes, Pole’s widow, nurses a thirst for vengeance. He seeks a reunion with Nina, but she declines it and leaves the island. He attends a church service, and is fulminated against by the minister from his pulpit. Magnus makes a spirited reply: ‘You call this da House o’ da Lord. Pah! It is da House o’ Oppression. A tool of da ruling classes to keep da poor fae rebelling … ’ This outburst is injudicious. The villagers are affronted. Further incensed by the law’s delays, they seize Magnus and lock him up in a shed. Isabella, who knows that witches and persons possessed should be burned, not hanged, sets fire to it. Meenie hastens to the rescue and is drowned on the way. Everybody believes that Magnus is dead, but in fact he escapes through the roof of the burning building, and departs for New Zealand.

Sahib and Son

J.I.M. Stewart, 22 December 1983

The dust-jacket of this book reproduces a snapshot of Kipling squatted on the deck of a Union Castle ship while reading or telling a story to a group of absorbed small children clustered around him. In the book itself there is record of a contrasting occasion. On board a P & O ship bound for Egypt, he writes to his daughter Elsie, who is just seventeen, and to his son John, 18 months younger:

Blood Relations

J.I.M. Stewart, 1 December 1983

‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The second part, at least, of Tolstoy’s celebrated dictum is borne out by Angus Wilson’s fiction, which deals largely in families, and this with a rich diversity through a long series of books. Sir Angus shuffles the cards brilliantly, but Unhappy Families remains the name of the pack.


J.I.M. Stewart, 15 September 1983

For M.R. James it is Eton and King’s that are gardens – incomparable gardens which are, however, precisely made for thus exclaiming about as one sits in their created shade. With the exclamation itself nobody need quarrel. It is as applicable to the material fabric as to much in the life and spirit of these magnificent royal foundations. But James wasn’t much of a man for falling to the labour Kipling knows gardens require: ‘grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives’.–


J.I.M. Stewart, 5 May 1983

In the opening chapter of A Study in Scarlet Dr Watson is introduced to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes says, ‘How are you?’ and adds: ‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’ Watson asks in astonishment: ‘How on earth did you know that?’ and Holmes, ‘chuckling to himself’, answers: ‘Never mind.’ In the following chapter the two men observe through a window ‘a stalwart, plainly dressed individual’ walking down the street with in his hand. Watson says, ‘I wonder what that fellow is looking for?’ and Holmes says: ‘You mean the retired sergeant of Marines.’ In each instance Holmes details the observations and deductions leading to his conclusion, but he does so only after a more or less teasing delay. Watson, if a close observer, could have marked what was chiefly revealing in the Marine – notably, ‘a great blue anchor tattooed on the back of the fellow’s hand’. (‘That smacked of the sea,’ Holmes explains.) But we ourselves have not been allowed to note either this, or the military carriage, or the regulation side-whiskers, or ‘some amount of self-importance and a certain air of command’, or the manner in which the Marine held his head and swung his cane. As the Holmes saga developed, Conan Doyle came to see that it would be to the advantage of the stories that his readers should be afforded a clear glimpse of the clues as they turn up. But he sets no great emphasis on his. In the main, we simply follow Holmes around and admire in due season. There is no premium, such as there is in the developed detective story, on driving us to exclaim: ‘I ought to have stooped that!’–

Floating Islands

J.I.M. Stewart, 21 October 1982

The ‘other worlds’ of the title here given to a gathering of miscellaneous pieces by C.S. Lewis are presumably Malcandra and Perelandra – Mars and Venus as they are revealed to Lewis’s space-traveller, Elwin Ransom – and also perhaps the spiritual world as set against the natural. In the USA, however, the same collection has been published under the title On Stories. This is equally valid, since what Walter Hooper has usefully brought together is a score of essays and reviews in which Lewis outlines his theory of fiction and affords commentaries both on his own individual romances and on related depictions of imaginary regions and societies as varied as The Wind in the Willows, Nineteen Eight-Four and The Lord of the Rings. Two pieces, an admirable discussion of the novels of Charles Williams and a slightly odd ‘Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers’, are printed for the first time. Near the conclusion of the essay on Williams, he expresses himself as ‘horribly afraid’ that he may have given the impression that Wiliams was a moralist, and in several places he shows himself as anxious to obviate a related misconception about himself. In writing fiction he has never started off with any didactic intention, and much less any eristic impulse, but always simply from a picture or pictures swimming up in his mind – he doesn’t know from where. ‘All my seven Narnian books,’ he says of his stories for children, ‘began with seeing pictures in my head. At first there was not a story, just pictures. The Lion [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe] began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.’ And similarly with his three ‘science fiction books’ for adults. ‘The starting-point of the second novel, Perelandra, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labours in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist. And then of course the story about an averted fall developed.’

Barriers of Silliness

J.I.M. Stewart, 1 July 1982

The first of Julian Symons’s ‘original investigations’, entitled ‘How a hermit was disturbed in his retirement’, is an apocryphal Sherlock Holmes story in which the great detective is lured away from his bee-keeping activities (Holmes has ‘developed a cage of a new type that can be slipped between two combs in the brood chamber’) by a distressed young woman posing, rather pointlessly, as a local journalist. This fails to deceive Holmes for a moment – for has she not sent him a handwritten letter from a private address? – and the real occasion of her visit turns out to be anxiety over her recently-acquired fiancé, who has unaccountably disappeared for some weeks and so may well be dead. It takes Holmes a couple of days to show that he is still alive and not at all likely to prove an agreeable husband. This is decidedly no three-pipe problem. Mr Symons’s plot is of a modest near-transparency from the start – a fact cunningly enhancing an authentic Conan Doyle effect in a story exhibiting throughout a striking and amusing command of pastiche.

Charles and Alfred

J.I.M. Stewart, 17 December 1981

The title page of this book tells us that it is ‘published to commemorate the centenary of Sir Charles Tennyson, the poet’s grandson and biographer, born 8 November 1879, died 22 June 1977’. Charles Tennyson was very far from being the most eccentric of all the Tennysons, but he is the most astonishing of them at least in one regard: that of enhanced, rather than merely sustained, activity in extreme old age. Through Summerfields, Eton and King’s, the Bar, the Office of Works, the Colonial Office, he made his way as a rather diffident if clearly able person. He became secretary to the Dunlop Rubber Company and Chairman of the Board of Trade Utility Furniture Committee; admiring Henry Moore, he was immensely proud ‘of having once helped him through the CIAD’ (Central Institute of Art and Design). He was also something of a literary man, who by the age of 51 had published 140 reviews and miscellaneous pieces; of these just four are in any way connected with his grandfather the Laureate.

Favourite Subjects

J.I.M. Stewart, 17 September 1981

It is probable that J.R.R. Tolkien was throughout his life a copious correspondent, but he appears to have been in his midforties before people took to preserving what he had addressed to them. Even so, Humphrey Carpenter has found that ‘an immense number’ of letters survive. In projecting the present selection, he realised that ‘an enormous quantity of material would have to be omitted’ and that ‘only passages of particular interest could be included.’ In the event, he has given priority to those letters in which Tolkien discusses his own books, but he has also worked with ‘an eye to demonstrating the huge range of Tolkien’s mind and interests’.

JC’s Call

J.I.M. Stewart, 2 April 1981

Joseph Conrad died at the age of 67 on 3 August 1924, the day following the 18th birthday of his younger son, John Conrad, the author of the present book. John’s memories, which reach astonishingly far back into his earliest childhood, begin with his family living in poverty in a tiny cottage, ‘a dark and gloomy place’, at Aldington in Kent. Chance, Conrad’s first immediately popular success, appeared when the boy was seven, and The Shadow-Line Conrad’s last work of unimpaired quality, when he was 11. During his early teens the family’s fortunes were rapidly transformed: the more startlingly so because Conrad was an extravagant as well as a very generous man. At the time of his death he was living in a substantial country-house – rented, it is true – and employing a secretary, a valet/butler, a chauffeur, two housemaids and a cook, occasional ‘extra help from the village’, two gardeners, and eventually (for Mrs Conrad) a living-in nurse. Jessie Conrad, although seriously incapacitated by an injured knee which defied the surgical skill even of the eminent Sir Robert Jones, was still obliged to cook the omelettes, since her husband would accept them from nobody else.


J.I.M. Stewart, 19 March 1981

Paul Fussell’s aim in this book, he tells us in a preface, is ‘to suggest what it felt like to be young and clever and literate in the final age of travel’. Or, more precisely, what it thus felt like in Great Britain. ‘Because the most sophisticated travel books of the age are British, I have focused largely on them.’

Ghost Artists

J.I.M. Stewart, 18 December 1980

A good many years ago the late Sir John Masterman, when Provost of Worcester College, had the idea of creating a species of Sherlock Holmes Apocrypha. He wrote two or three short stories which appeared, I think, in an evening newspaper. I myself can recall nothing of them except a little joke. In the course of investigating a case of poisoning. Holmes has occasion to say to his old friend: ‘Alimentary, my dear Watson.’ The project came to a hall when Sir John was gently made aware of the fact that the name and character of the great detective constituted a copyright owned by the Conan Doyle estate. But now fifty years have elapsed since Conan Doyle’s death, and anybody that pleases can have a go at a Holmes story. The present example is perhaps most kindly described as extremely odd. In addition to Holmes and Watson the main characters are Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, A.N. Whitehead. J.M. Keynes and G.E. Moore. Rather in the role of what are coming to be known as ‘guest artists’, room is also found for Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. All these, together with Annie Besant, turn out to be goodies or near goodies, and over against them, as chief baddy, is Aleister Crowley, variously described as ‘the high priest of post-Edwardian mysticism’ and ‘the wickedest man in England’.

Old Western Man

J.I.M. Stewart, 18 September 1980

This is a collection of essays, old and new, by diverse hands, brought together by James T. Como, a Professor of Rhetorical Communication in the City University of New York. He tells us in an introduction: ‘Now several societies exist for the purpose of studying Lewis’s thoughts; film rights to several of his books have been purchased, and filmed documentaries of his life have been produced; both popular and scholarly books on Lewis are being published with increasing frequency (so that the Modern Language Association cites Lewis as one of the most rapidly increasing objects of literary study in the world).’ Another critic, Mr Eugene McGovern, who ‘works in the field of casualty insurance on actuarial matters’, and who, with the exception of Professor Como himself, is the only contributor to the volume not to have been personally acquainted with Lewis, records the further impressive fact that Lewis’s works ‘at present sell at about two million copies per year’.



5 April 1984

J.I.M. Stewart writes: Before I agreed on the telephone to a small curtailment of my review required through the exigencies of space, it concluded thus:I am not confident that Mrs Thwaite has quite gauged the strength of these conflicting indignations in the mid-1920s. But she has done a great service in providing a full and judicious review, not only of Edmund Gosse’s career and personality,...

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